The history of Western table etiquette from the ground up

The history of Western table etiquette from the ground up

Table manners are a matter of common sense, regardless of country, and failure to acquire them can even call into question a person’s competence.

It goes without saying that the act of eating is essential for all living things, including humans.

People eat in order to survive. The act of eating is a privilege given only to humans. This is the act of communicating with others, using the common action of eating as a means of communication.

Table manners are directly related to the image you give to others, as are the words you utter.

Due to the historical background, the manner of transmission remains ambiguous. This can lead to a useless dispute about the correctness of small things, but first, let’s look at the history in order to understand what the “differences” are.

There is no single Western table etiquette

The West includes European countries, North America and South America. Of course, it is not the case that the same table etiquette is used in more than 100 of these countries.

The Western table manners that have been introduced to the world are still vague and few people know exactly what they are.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Japanese, who have not fully adopted Western culture, are also still confused by the different types of Western manners.

The first Western table manners introduced to Japan were the ’50 rules of dining etiquette’.
It is nearly 500 years old and the basics and principles of table etiquette are still rooted in this book. However, it is too old, and it is also said that Japanese table manners are mixed because the British introduced French table manners to Japan without instilling them.

Before we get to the correct table etiquette, let’s take a look at its history.

Origins of standard table etiquette circa 2500 BC

The earliest documented dining etiquette is found in the instructions of Ptahhotep from around 2500 BC, during the reign of King Iseshi of Ancient Egypt.

‘When eating with people, obey your superiors.
‘When everyone laughs, you should laugh too.’
‘Never be assertive at the dinner table, but see things from the point of view of the superior.’

It was already written 4,000 years ago in a book that the essence of manners is the spirit of compassion and the importance of caring for people in order to get along well with others.  

11th century Crusades – 12th century

Christians across Europe founded the Crusades to take back the Holy City of Jerusalem from the infidels.

These armies valued the pride of having stood up in the name of God and the spirit of chivalry above all else, and were strict in their courtesy, manners and etiquette. As these crusaders were quaint in many parts of the country, manners and etiquette spread.

The chivalric approach required by the Crusaders is also responsible for what is known as ‘ladies first’, the act of standing up for women and treating them with respect.

Until the 12th century

Europeans’ diet consisted mainly of roasted meat, boiled vegetables and very plain bread. Only the meals of the Medici family in Italy and the French royal family became more and more sumptuous and luxurious in response to the power of the time.

At that time, there was no well-established table manners, and the cutlery on the table consisted of knives only, or knives and spoons, and forks had not yet appeared.

All the food was placed on the table at once, and chunks of meat and fish were served on platters, and it was the host’s role to cut them up with a large knife.

People shared the food and ate it with their hands, and this hand-holding eating method was no exception, even for royalty and aristocracy.

Liquids such as soups and sauces were dipped into the bread and eaten, and dirty hands were wiped with the tablecloth Therefore, in this manner of eating, it was most important to keep the hands and fingers clean.

There were no strict rules regarding the order in which people were seated at the table or the order in which the food was served, as is the case today.

All dishes were served and laid out at once, and what each guest ate was determined above all by the seat they were seated at.

It was not possible to pass around platters or distribute portions so that everyone could get their fill.

No one thought that all guests should eat everything on the menu.

People ate only the dishes within reach of their seats or those taken by their neighbours.

The format in which all the diners ate the same food, where everyone ate everything on the menu, and each person was served a dish in turn, only began in the ’18th century’.

13th-15th centuries

Full-fledged books on etiquette began to be published. They included the following information.

‘Never return bones or other parts of a meal to their original plates.’
‘Do not sniff while eating.’
‘Do not spit on or around the table.’
‘If you blow your nose or cough, do it backwards so that it doesn’t fly onto the table.’

14th century

The content was even more detailed.

‘Wash your hands before eating.’
‘Never use the tip of a knife instead of a toothpick.’

15th century “50 rules of dining etiquette”

A full-fledged instruction book specialising in table manners appeared.

When Catherine of the Medici family, a famous Italian family, married into the French royal family, the head chef who accompanied her was astonished at the barbarity of French table manners, and the “50 Rules of Dining Etiquette” was born, outlining the use of cutlery. This is said to be the world’s first book specialising in table manners.

Eventually, this book spread to England and other parts of Europe, and table manners spread.

The British and French, in particular, took pride in their own country and began to put their own spin on the basic etiquette.

End of the 18th century – the British Industrial Revolution and new prosperity

The Industrial Revolution in Britain from the end of the 18th century to the end of the 19th century saw the development of agriculture and industry, and mining and transport were involved in major social, economic and cultural developments.

Table manners then spread across Europe, North America and the world.

19th century

The middle class emerged in contrast to the upper classes, and with them, nannies, entertainment, etc. became fashionable.

People became wealthier and the middle classes were able to afford luxury goods, such as fine tables, which they were able to acquire.

In a traditional English house, the living and diving areas were upstairs (First Floor), separated by a door, and when the meal was announced, guests moved from the sitting room (where drinks and other refreshments were served and enjoyed before the meal) to the dining room and formed a line. Drinks were not taken to the dining room.

These events were formal affairs, surrounded by opulence, silverware and crystal.

Formal dining etiquette

  • The host entered the room first with the first lady, and the ladies sat on the right side
  • Guests enter in order of precedence
  • Hostess enters last, with the most important man
  • Informal dining
  • Hostess enters first, followed by women
  • Men follow the women.
  • Hostess last
  • At the end, the hostess is the first to leave (except for protocol)

After World War I 1914-1918

Job opportunities increased and the number of helpers decreased as people were able to be independent with good salaries.

People who worked in the service industry were able to seek other employment, with women preferring secretarial work and men accounting, etc.

There were fewer maids, fewer maid industries, which meant less formal dining.

Post-WWII 1939-1945.

The style changed to that of the US soldier. Dining rooms have disappeared there.

And the living area and dining area were no longer separated.

1980s American kitchen

Open kitchens became fashionable, allowing guests and hosts to see what each other was doing.

2000s – No kitchen

There was a change to the urban style of spending time in restaurants and other places.

ICPA offers courses in international etiquette. If you like, come and experience it.

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