Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Proprieties and Usages of Good Society — Lesson VII. Table Manners

Proprieties and Usages of Good Society — Lesson VII. Table Manners

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 19, 2010

VI. Ball Room Etiquette
VIII. Proper Street Deportment

VII. Table Manners

Perhaps no one thing betrays ill breeding, and on the other hand evidences good breeding, as do the manners a person exhibits at the table.

The habits of a life time are difficult to overcome. While some people are constitutionally dainty in their habits and manners, others may be rude and uncouth by nature. But happily training will rid the most ill-mannered person of his faults and he can become, in time, as refined and cultured in this as in any other branch of etiquette.

A man who had the most perfect manners of anybody that I ever saw was a man who was bred in Utah, but who had traveled extensively and who had been so observant and assiduous that he had cultivated to the extreme every elegance and grace of his naturally refined and dignified spirit. This gentleman told me once that when he went out on his first mission, a boy of nineteen, he had made up his mind to become all that was possible for him to be as a polished gentleman of the world, while losing none of his love and testimony of the Gospel. He said that the first time he encountered educated strangers after leaving Utah was on a boat going down the Mississippi river to New Orleans. He looked about until he had discovered the most courtly gentleman on the boat – no doubt a Southerner of the grand old type – and this man was chosen as a model for the young missionary. When the latter went to the table, he watched carefully but quietly to see just what his mentor would do, and then he imitated that person’s actions as perfectly as possible. And for years after, he made that the absolute rule of his life – to choose the finest mannered person in a company, and to make that individual his unconscious teacher and guide. When he was in doubt what to do, he would watch other gentlemen and follow their example. In those simple matters of etiquette which mark the lady or the gentleman. This, then, is a good rule to follow. What lessons our young missionaries who go out into the world would learn, if they would observe the rule made for himself by the young ma referred to and followed so strictly by him that he has attained an international reputation for his polished and elegant demeanor.

And now, let us approach the table where we are to have a lesson in some of the details of that important function.

It would seem foolish to suggest that hands should be cleansed and hair brushed smooth before sitting down to dinner, either at home or abroad; yet there are many infringements of this simple requisite by many good people who take the liberty of being ill-bred and ill-mannered in their own homes, and sometimes in the homes of their friends. If you are a guest in another’s home, be sure that you ascertain the time of the meals and be as prompt as possible in your appearance on these occasions. Ladies always precede gentlemen in going from the drawing room into the dining room, and when you reach the place assigned you at the table stand behind your chair quietly until you see your hostess sit. Other guests may seat themselves; but the best customs of this country insist that no guest shall be seated until the hostess herself has assumed her chair. Adjust your clothing properly before sitting down; and sit squarely back in your chair; make no noise or confusion in moving your chair about. Do not rest your arms or hands upon the table, but let them lie quietly in the lap, except when using them.

As soon as your hostess and the others have taken their napkins, lay yours lightly across your lap, not spreading it out like a tablecloth, nor tucking it under your chin like a bib, and use only a corner to wipe the mouth. Sometimes elderly or stout ladies or gentlemen will laughingly ask the privilege of the hostess to use the napkin as a bib; but it is bad form, generally, and should be avoided.

You will be served with soup, if it is a formal dinner, and a large spoon will be given you with which to eat it. This spoon is not to be used as a shovel, but you will dip small portions of the soup in at one side of the spoon and then take it into the mouth from the other side, without making the least noise. All noises, such as blowing the nose, blowing soup, sucking or gulping, are extremely vulgar, at table especially. Practice a little grace in the handling of your spoon, and be as dainty as possible in all your movements, but natural and not affected. Do not eat your soup to the last mouthful, or your hostess will insist upon helping you to more, and that is always rather bad form. It is supposed that your hostess has sufficient for the dinner, to supply all your cravings without receiving a double portion of soup and thus making all the others wait to be served with the dinner proper.

In regard to the proper time to begin eating, customs change, but one of the best authorities, in a book published in 1902, says, “As soon as you are helped at table, begin to eat.” This is sensible and comfortable.

You will be asked at the next course what kind of meat you prefer, and if it should be fowl or game, do not hesitate to express a preference, if you have one, for the light meat or the dark. When you are asked as to your preferences, state them frankly and modestly, as it is evident that your hostess wishes to please you, and you must graciously accept the kindness.

Bread and butter will be handed around with this course. Now-a-days people use little bread-and-butter plates on which the bread is placed with a little golden ball or square of butter. It is bad form to spread a slice of bread, and vulgar to bite into it, leaving the tooth-marks all around the edge. Break off a mouthful of the bread and put a little butter on it; do this each time you wish to eat it.

If gravy is placed on your plate, do not mix your potatoes with it, turning them over with your knife and fork.

Certainly every one understands that it is improper to eat with the knife, and yet we see uncouth people shoveling their food down their throats with their knives, to the imminent danger of their mouths and the disgust of the onlookers. Do not load your fork, either, to the handle and then throw it into your mouth. Your food should be placed daintily on the back of your fork as you hold it in your left hand. It is seldom necessary to lay down your knife and take your fork in the right hand to eat with. All vegetables are now eaten with the fork. Spoons are not used with vegetables as a rule, unless the food is served in liquid form; indeed, spoons are seldom seen after the soup course on elegant tables, unless it is for some very soft desert which cannot be handled with a fork. Ice-cream is sometimes eaten with a fork, and special, dainty forks are provided for that purpose.

Usually spoons, knives and forks are laid at each place, arranged in the order of their use, and should not be disturbed until the time for their proper use. Do not make the mistake of using your desert knife or fork to eat your meat course with, unless you want to betray your ignorance to the servants.

It is allowable to accept a second helping during the meat course, of anything which you may especially enjoy, and as you accept it a word or two of commendation to your hostess for her delicious cooking is in good taste, and will please the recipient. It is a pity that some good people have such extremely voracious ways of eating their food; but, as has been said, it is hard to overcome the habits of a lifetime. Large mouthfuls, leaning over the table, chewing the food with great gusto, talking with the mouth full of food – all these are extreme bad taste.

If you are in doubt as to how to take any little dainty dish which may be offered you, such as olives or cheese, watch the best mannered person at the table, and imitate him or her as perfectly as you can.

Never put your fork into a piece of bread to take it from the plate, but always take it daintily and carefully with your fingers.

Your desert eaten, you can sit quietly until the others are through with theirs also. It is good manners and good hygiene to eat very slowly, and to chew your food quietly and well.

Toothpicks are never placed on elegant tables. In good society you are supposed to perform that office in the privacy of your own room; and if it is bad manners to pick the teeth at table, how much worse is it to blow the nose, or “spit” or do any of those vulgar things which some excellent people always feel called upon to do at such times. To belch wind is the extreme of vulgarity at any time; but at the table it is an outrage. One excellent gentleman is seldom, if ever, invited out to meals, for he has the inveterate habit of spitting into his handkerchief during that important function; you can imagine the disgust and consternation of all who are at the table with him! People who have catarrh should attend to themselves with their nose-douches and other paraphernalia in their own bed-chambers and not inflict their misfortunes or bad habits on their friends promiscuously.

At the close of the meal, watch for your hostess to rise, and be ready to follow her example instantly, following her into the drawing-room for the usual after-dinner conversation. If you are well-read and well-bred, you will have entered into the conversation at the table, adding what you can to the general amusement and gay chatter, which should always accompany the meal at any time. Laughter aids digestion, and gay stories with light badinage should form the chief feature of the talk at table; although in some homes the meal time is given over to serious conversation on some literary or other interesting subject, this time being chosen by some wise parents in which to train the minds of their children and add to their store of information, thus leading them to see the beauty in so commonplace a thing as eating one’s dinner. Above all things, the dinner table should not be made the place for argument, discussion or contention, or of directly personal remarks which lead to the embarrassment of any one present. Let the parents resolve to put away with a firm hand anything that may lead to disagreeable subjects while sitting at the table. Cheerful talk will make this time a healthful and useful season.

All the rules given herein are applicable, in the main, to home dinners, as well as to all other meals; and it is here, indeed, that children fall into bad methods or vulgar habits, or are trained into ways of refinement of manners. Therefore, let the young girl be resolved that she will make a strenuous endeavor to bring some element of refinement and culture into the meal-times of her home, no matter what it may cost her in labor and effort. The result will be well worth whatever price she may have to pay. Insist upon the primary rules laid down in this article being observed by every child in the household, and when your brothers are grown up and go upon missions they will thank you a thousand times for the help you have given them in their boyhood days to avoid the mistakes so frequently made by our good but untrained missionaries who have such golden hearts, albeit covered by a rough exterior. Take this lesson to heart and practice upon it every day of your lives, and you will never have occasion to regret the time nor the labor spent.


1. What do manners at table indicate of a person?
2. What is to be said of habits of long standing?
3. What can you say of the young man mentioned in this lesson as to the rule he made for himself in learning good manners?
4. Do you know any other persons similar to this young man?
5. What points of good manners should be known to everybody without telling them?
6. What are the requisites of good manners when a visitor in another person’s house? Why should one be prompt at table, both at home and abroad?
7. What have you to say of napkins? Of knives, forks and spoons?
8. How should these articles be used at table?
9. Name all the vulgar things you ca think of that should be avoided at table.
10. What is the practice about beginning to eat.
11. What things should be eaten with the spoon? With the fork? With the knife?
12. What can you say of serving and eating bread and butter? What does this lesson say about ice-cream?
13. What can you say as to conversation at table? What should be its characteristic?
14. What should you do when finished eating?
15. What should you do with regard to sitting down to table and rising from the table?
16. Who has any thought upon the subject that has not been covered by any of the expressions given?



  1. So much vulgarity! I’m shocked.

    Seriously, it’s interesting that what I consider the “frivolous extras” of manners (like buttering your bread one broken bite-sized piece at a time, dipping soup with the edge of your spoon, and eating with the back of the fork) are considered just as important as the “basics,” (like chewing with your mouth closed, not belching, spitting or blowing your nose, etc.)

    Also, what’s up with eating as soon as you get your food? If everything else waits for the host(ess), should one wait until (s)he begins eating before the guests? Umm, did I just reveal my ill-breeding?

    Comment by Clark — March 19, 2010 @ 8:20 am

  2. Well, some of this is just silly! Eat your food off the back of your fork? What are we? A bunch of Anglophiles?

    And how do you hitch your manners wagon to the “finest mannered gentleman” in the company if you don’t already have the proper biases about what constitutes “fine manners”? You may end up hitching yourself to a slob.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 19, 2010 @ 8:34 am

  3. As usual Ardis this is a good series. Most of the item mentioned in this piece are still true today. My Mission Mom was very good about teaching us Missionaries table manners and expected us to follow them. I worked for a company that tought salemen about dinning and proper manners so that they would be better at their jobs and come across a gentlemen/women. It is still very important in most circles. Just watch the State dinners at the Whitehouse, it matters. Enjoyed it.

    Comment by Mex Davis — March 19, 2010 @ 9:41 am

  4. I agree that table manners — even the frivolous ones — matter if for no other reason than that breaking the rules makes such a handy excuse to ridicule us individually (or, in the case of missionaries, as Mormons in general) if we appear ignorant of the rules. If they want to dismiss us as not worthy of attention, make ’em work to find a real reason, I say. ( I do think there are other reasons for good manners, but that one suffices at a minimum.)

    Some of the specific rules do seem to have changed since those days, including the one about when to start eating. Waiting for the hostess to pick up her fork, or waiting until everyone at your smaller table at a large banquet to be served, seems to be expected today.

    Mark B., I will *always* pattern my behavior after yours, in any gathering. Consider what an awesome responsibility you have!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 19, 2010 @ 10:32 am

  5. Ice cream with a fork?!? Man, that must have been some grainy ice cream.

    I’m actually curious what exactly “chewing the food with great gusto” means, since it’s listed separately from chewing with the mouth open.

    Comment by David B — March 19, 2010 @ 10:49 am

  6. Do you think that people ate like this in private as well as in public? Not biting into a slice of bread? I’ve been watching old episodes of Monk, which makes me wonder if some of these rules were not set up by someone with OCD.

    (I’m all for etiquette and manners, but there are limits!)

    Comment by Researcher — March 19, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

  7. Just back to this after several hours’ break–only to feel the weight of the world falling on my shoulders.

    Ardis, if it makes you feel any better–in our home we never sat down or started eating before my mother (and my children have learned that they begin eating only after their mother has) and I have surprised some missionaries having dinner with us by suggesting that they might pay attention to the rest of us and follow that example. So, at least in that one area, we’re more advanced than the lesson writer.

    The rules about handkerchiefs and their proper use remind me of an old Garrison Keillor story about some dainty aunts who would retire to the bathroom and close the door and turn on the water before a few timid sniffs into their hankies, while some of his uncles would pull out a bandanna at the table with a flourish and blow their noses like a foghorn on Lake Superior.

    We always broke our bread before buttering it. I don’t think they were bite-sized pieces though, so the bread might have shown some vulgar tooth marks after all.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 19, 2010 @ 4:54 pm

  8. I think this piece is touchier for us than other entries in the series because we all still eat, even if we don’t still travel by train or dance the quadrille — anytime we talk about our own or others’ manners, we risk sounding like we’re condemning the lower-class scum who don’t follow our habits, or parading the la-di-da affectations of the boiled shirt and crooked finger set.

    In my parents’ house there were definitely vulgar tooth marks on the breakfast toast, and there may have been the occasional elbow on the lunch table. But for dinner — even though it was just the five of us and even if it was only macaroni and cheese or meatloaf and mashed potatoes — my parents expected us to use the best manners we had, including breaking the bread before buttering a bite, including correct use of utensils (but we ate American rather than European style), including correct posture. We had to ask to leave the table, even if it came out in a rush as “plezemuhbe’scused,” and we had to bus our own dishes. Mom wanted us not to be embarrassed in front of other people when we grew up.

    Somebody — I think in General Conference — spoke about how his mother always tried to make note of how tables were set in ward homes, and go one step more casual when she invited any ward family to dinner. If they had a cloth tablecloth, she used plastic. If they had plastic, she used paper. If they used paper, her table was bare. She always wanted the guests to feel superior in one respect, no matter what. Not a bad idea, I think, when we secretly judge each other by our table manners all the time. (Anybody who doesn’t notice other people’s table manners is either the purest of innocent souls, or else probably should be paying more attention to her own manners. Even if you’re not judging others, they’re judging you!)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 19, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

  9. I agree that good table manners are important. I tried to teach my kids to not start eating until I did, and to ask permission to leave the table instead of running off with the last bite. However, we never mastered the art of buttering one bite of bread at a time, and the mashed potatoes always had a hole dug in the center for the gravy. I taught them European style of eating, only so they wouldn’t think someone was crazy who ate that way, not that I wanted them to.

    There are times when I was invited to really fancy dinners and believe me, I watched others carefully before making some obvious goof.

    Comment by Maurine — March 19, 2010 @ 11:25 pm

  10. This reminds me of YM/YW manners dinners. Most of the kids had very casual (not rude) table manners. And most of the adults had mistaken ideas about what was correct. It was tough to teach buttering just the bite-sized piece when the Bishop’s councilor was adamant that one could butter the whole slice of bread.

    I have attended formal banquets in 5-star hotels and eaten scorched potatoes beside a scout campfire. In all cases and places, the best manners are kindness and politeness. And when she knows what she is doing, always follow the hostess.

    Comment by Glenn Smith — March 20, 2010 @ 12:15 am

  11. And, of course, some manners considered rude in Western society will be expected as a show of appreciation in other cultures. i.e. slurping a hot drink or belching after eating

    Comment by Glenn Smith — March 20, 2010 @ 12:24 am

  12. I remember reading in an etiquette book (Emily Post, i think it was) that if there are 6 or fewer people you should wait until the hostess’s (and it was always the hostess‘s) fork was raised to start eating unless she said to go ahead and start, but if there were 7 or more people everyone should start eating as soon as they are served. (The idea is that people shouldn’t be forced to wait until their food is cold to start eating, just because they were served first.)

    My family of 6, everyone’s allowed to start eating as soon as they’re served, which happens after the prayer. (Keeps the 2-year-old from eating before the prayer, you see.) That’s a sequence that messes with guests occasionally–but as Emily Post said over and over, etiquette isn’t a set of rules to be followed, it’s a set of guidelines to be adapted as necessary.

    (And yes, my mother made me read etiquette books while i was growing up.)

    Comment by David B — March 20, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

  13. I had no idea there were differences in the American and European uses of a fork. I had no idea there was a ‘European style’ of eating!

    It would be considered very impolite still to start to eat until everyone had been served, unless the hostess says ‘please do start’.Only one decent way to use a fork, with the back of the fork, the handle in the palm and extending along to the thumb and forefinger. The fork remains in the left hand and the knife in the right hand throughout the course, unless both placed on the plate simultaneously (to have a drink, for instance).

    My 18 month old grandson merrily chomps his way through each meal with mouth wide open. He dines elsewhere on a regular basis and I suspect he has acquired this faux pas there. Unfortunately his big smile looks so cute that we do not have the heart to address this breach of etiquette just yet, but It Shall Be Done, eventually, because dining out with him is embarrassingly noisy!!

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — March 21, 2010 @ 6:19 am

  14. Since you “had no idea,” Anne, I’ll describe the other “decent way to use a fork” — and should you ever host an American missionary, he is doing things exactly the way his mother taught him:

    Your way of holding the fork is done in America only when someone is simultaneously using a knife — fork in left hand, knife in right. When one or two bite-size pieces of meat have been cut, the knife is set down, handle on table and blade propped against plate, the fork is transferred to the right hand (fork being held exactly like a spoon or pencil is generally held), and food is lifted to the mouth.

    You might find that barbaric, or at least inefficient, with all that shifting of silver, but we find it more graceful to *lift* food to the mouth than to use the knife to mash food (food that can’t be speared, that is, like peas or whipped potatoes or baked beans or a hundred other soft or small foods) onto the back of a fork.

    And for differences like this we fought a Revolution! Long live the Spirit of ’76!!!!!!

    Er … thank you for coming tonight, that is. Please pass the butter.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 21, 2010 @ 8:04 am

  15. H’mmm..I eat my peas on the back of the fork!You just kind of..layer… them!

    Interesting point though. I wonder if they give missionaries ‘European etiquette’ lessons at the MTC in Preston, cos I have never noticed American missionaries eating the way you described – not that I would be looking, but my kids would have picked up on it and tried it out at a later mealtime with the excuse ‘but you didn’t tell Elder So and So off when he did it!’

    Perspective time though- at Christmas, when my son came back from India, he was demonstrating how to eat with fingers in a polite manner,a la Indian mode, but then added ‘that’s for those who have food, of course’. So, however we eat, let’s be grateful for the fact we are able to, is my thought for the day.

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — March 21, 2010 @ 8:53 am

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