Gathering Around the Grand Dining Table

By Robert Reed    
   The wonderful tradition of gathering around the grand dining table for a celebrated meal with distinguished guests has not been around forever.
   In historical terms the elegant dining table was not a feature in fashionable American homes until well into the 18th century. Before that time a relatively plain and solitary table might be crowded into an open hall along with cupboards, chairs, carpets, and even beds. During the 16th century, as dining became more of a focal point, expanding dining tables came into usage in many parts of Europe. Eventually a specific location for placing either a regular or an expanding dining table took on greater importance.
   A fictional character appeared in a 1639 book making reference to a room for dining which was entered at eleven and six o’clock when “excellent meat and drink” were served on the table.
   Early in the 18th century at the prestigious governor’s palace in Williamsburg, Virginia apparently only one main table was used. Smaller tables were then added as the number of guests were increased. In 1711 a guest there recorded in a diary, “the table was so full that the Doctor and Mrs. Graeme and I had a little table to our selves and were more merry than the rest of the company.”
   Graham Hood, author of The Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, further indicates the gathering place for dining as the first quarter of the 1700s unfolded was not likely a specific location. Such a gathering place was most likely to be the parlor according to Graham or on grand occasions perhaps the middle room upstairs. After dinner the ladies probably retired for cards, tea, and conversation to the parlor when it was not needed for business, or upstairs to a room where they might eventually be joined by the gentlemen.
   Lt. Governor William Gooch wrote in the 1720s of a “great Dining Room” at Williamsburg adding, “when things were upon the Table, we were call’d to Dinner and came into the Room.” It is likely that such dining tables at the time remained round and were supplemented by smaller tables as needed.
   In his written records Gooch suggested that room for dining had painted walls rather than tapestry because such textiles would “retain the smell of victuals” in the room. However other accounts dispute this and suggest that tapestries were used to decorate such rooms in many fine homes.
   Round dining tables continued to dominate the social scene of elegant dining during the first half of the 18th century. Typical of this fashion would be the circular Queen Anne table crafted from a range of hardwood from mahogany to maple. Such tables usually hand slender curved cabriole legs and a hinged drop leaf. However a number of dining tables of the 1750s were either rectangular or square with or without a drop leaf. Such squared off tables could readily be placed together for additional dining space.
   In England Thomas Chippendale and others were producing a few rectangular tables during that second half of that century which could be placed end to end to accommodate larger numbers of guests. Moreover other dining tables were being crafted with half-round ends. Such tables could then be stood against the wall when not in use, such as a type of pier or side table.
   Toward the 1780s and beyond two or more drop-leaf tables were sometimes joined in a group to form seating space for up to ten people according to Patricia Petraglia author of American Antique Furniture, Styles and Origins. Other tables at the time included three-part configurations with two half-round ends (or aprons) capable of separate service. Such large table halves were supported by four square tapering legs. Later models had six legs and rather D-shaped table ends.
   When it came to dining tables the major innovations of the late 18th century could likely be credited to England’s George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton. Individually they both developed what became known as the extension dining table. The extension table “was of great importance,” according to Sarah Lockwood author of the pioneering 1920s book Antiques, “and soon developed into a table of rare dignity and beauty.”    Such extension dining tables were made in several separate parts which could be fitted together making a table nearly any desired length. The end sections, like others, were semi-circular and were constructed with a leaf-leaf on one side.
   Not surprisingly more functional dining tables found special places in the households of the American well to do of the late 18th century. A room was now exclusively for dining. Extension tables were fitted together from two or three part sections for special events. By the early 1800s such dining table sections were given further mobility with the regular addition of casters or rollers.
   American dining tables had something else going for them early in the 19th century too, Duncan Phyfe. While the origins of the classic dining table were clearly British, Phyfe’s contributions from the United States side were clearly exceptional. Based in New York City craftsman Phyfe provided extra leaves for dining tables that allowed them to be pulled out to great length. Further these tables were supported on pedestal bases which in turn rested on flowing down-swinging legs. Frequently the graceful legs of these tables were given leaf designs and rolls of delicate reeding. They ended with fine brass mounts and movement-adding castors.    Dining tables created and crafted by Phyfe were, in Lockwood’s established opinion, “regarded by many people as the most beautiful dining tables ever made.”
   It was a Federal Period dining table that clearly impressed a visitor to Washington in 1815 who later wrote:    “We dined at Mrs. Monroe’s….We had the most stylish dinner I have ever had. The table was wider than we have, and in the middle a large, perhaps silver, waiter, with images like some Aunt Silsbee has, only more of them, and vases filled with flowers, which made (a) very showy appearance as the candles were lighted when we went to the table….”
   Many of the Federal dining tables of that era were made of mahogany and provided with rounded leaves to lift up and thus extend their rectangular tops. Some of the more elaborate examples were supported by tapering legs which ended in so-called hairy paw feet that in turn rested on castors.
   By the middle of the 19th century the expandable dining table had been introduced in the United States. Where earlier the extension dining table allowed for additional leaves or smaller tables at the ends, the expandable table provided space in the center for one or more sections. During the 1850s the greater margin of expandable dining tables were circular rather than rectangular.
   Ultimately the expandable dining table became an essential dining standard in a vast number of early 20th century homes. This was thanks in part to the industrial commerce in the east and middle west. And it was thanks in part to the traditional convenience such tables offered as more people continued to gather for special events at mealtime.

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