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Decorative Dining

October 25, 2011

Everyone needs to eat, right?

We spend plenty of time thinking about what we are going to have for dinner every day, but how often do you think about the objects that contain, serve or cut your food? In the age of the microwave and the drive-thru, it may seem crazy to think about breaking out your finest silver pieces to serve dinner. To wealthy and upper middle-class Americans during the Victorian era (or more specifially, The Gilded Age) the practice of dining was an art, and fine silver was a key component.

Let’s start with an example of how Mrs. Maria Dewing suggests a proper dinner table should be set in her helpful guide, Beauty in the Household, published in 1882.

Image from Maria Richards Dewing’s Beauty in the Household (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882), page 72.

As you can see, even a small gathering without servants (gasp!) called for a very specific placement of dishes. It is, then, no surprise that such great care was taken in the appearance of the serving utensils and dishes. Not only was there a specific placement of the pieces, but they were also often decorated and designed in accordance with their function.

Here are a few flatware examples from one of the largest (it totaled about 1,250 pieces) and grandest (it was made from a half ton of silver) dinner and dessert service that Tiffany & Co. made in the 1870s:

Egg Spoons

Oyster forks

Grape scissors

Asparagus tongs

Salt spoons

Marrow spoons

Melon knives

Berry spoons

We feel stressed today if we use the wrong fork for our salad — can you imagine being forced to choose between an egg spoon and a berry spoon? Well-bred Victorians would have known the difference.

Luckily, if they had a moment of doubt, the silver designers often provided hints as to how the item may be used. The DMA’s Decorative Arts collection has some wonderful examples of these types of silverware.

Sometimes, specific foods were incorporated into the designs.

Gorham Manufacturing Company, Ice Bowl (with spoon), c.1871, Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc.

George W. Shiebler and Company, "Grass" Pattern Sardine Server, c. 1880-1890, Dallas Museum of Art, The V. Stephan Vaughan Collection, gift of the 1991 Silver Supper

Others may subtly hint at the type of food for which they were used.

R. Wallace and Sons Manufacturing Company, Ice Cream Slice, c. 1880-1890, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Dr. and Mrs. Dale Bennett

John R. Wendt & Company, Cheese Knife, c. 1870, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Dr. and Mrs. Dale Bennett

On the other hand, designers did not always give such helpful hints. Instead, they creatively designed an item using influences from non-food related objects.

Both of the items below have very specific uses; what do you think they are? Leave your ideas in a comment and I will provide the answers in the comment section next week!

Left: Gorham Manufacturing Company, c.1880, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Dr. and Mrs. Dale Bennett Right: B.D. Beiderhase & Co., 1872, Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Dr. and Mrs. Dale Bennett

While most Victorian families may not have purchased such whimsical silver pieces as these, the widespread market for silver gave designers the freedom to create wonderfully dynamic works of art that we can marvel over today at the DMA.

Bon Appétit!

Jessica Kennedy

McDermott Intern for Gallery Teaching

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 27, 2011 10:31 am

    I love this Jessica! I especially enjoy the cow sitting on the end of the cheese knife, really cute. As for those super fancy weapons, I mean silverware, if I didn’t know what they were for, I would probably sit down at the table wondering if our dinner was still alive at that point.

  2. November 1, 2011 10:25 am

    Guessing from everyone’s stunned silence (except for Hannah) I will assume that these objects were just too tough to figure out. So, I will tell you that the object on the left is an Ice Cream Hatchet (before scooping became the preferred method, apparently) and the object on the right is a “Bird” Pattern Macaroni Knife.

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