In 1840, when Henry Cole painted The Dinner Party, napkins had to be very large to cover the voluminous skirts then fashionable. Here a party of 12 is nearing the end of the lengthy dinner party ritual. They have proceeded to the dessert service after which the cloth will be removed and fresh fruit and nuts served on the bare mahogany table. After that, the ladies will retire to the front parlor behind the closed folding doors separating the front parlor and the dining parlor, and the gentlemen will remain at the table drinking brandy. The host will keep a careful eye on the guests, however, suggesting at last that the gentlemen “join the ladies.” before the level of inebriation becomes embarrassing. Soon the dinner party ritual will have come to an end—but only for a while, for the guests are now obliged to issue a reciprocal dinner invitation to their hosts.
Architecturally, this British dining room bears a strong resemblance to that of the Merchant’s House, the historic house museum in New York City where the Tredwell family lived for almost 100 years. There’s more about 19th-century dining in An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City 1835-65. Go here to read a sample chapter. And for more about the museum see merchantshouse.org.