How to Set the Table like a 1950s Housewife

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Even in the ’50s, many families only came together at the table. (Now, it seems, many families don’t even do that — but they should!) The atmosphere created at the family table sets the standard for family relationships, conduct, and comradeship. And if the homemaker is going to put all that energy into preparing the meals, then they deserve to be presented beautifully. Knowing how to set the table, 50s style, means knowing how to provide convenience, orderliness, and attractiveness as a setting for the meal. This advice on table-setting comes from Marion Hurst.

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Serving Dinner, 50s Style (Without a Maid!)

  1. Keep your table pretty and neat. Use pretty dishes, table linens, and centerpieces to create an attractive scene. Keep everything on the table scrupulously clean. Introduce as much variety as possible through the use of color and appointments.
  2. Use a simple style of service, such as English or family-style. Train your children to POLITELY help with table service, such as clearing, serving, and setting.
  3. Keep the dining room clean, properly lit, and well-dusted. Allow 24″-30″ for each place setting. Use an absorbent silence cloth under the table cloth. Tablecloths should hang down about 10″ all around the table.
  4. Bright colors are excellent for less-formal family meals. Try to combine bright china with neutral linens and vice versa. Use paper napkins or napkins that go with the linens. Remember that the table is not set until the chairs are in place, too.
  5. Every meal should have a centerpiece of some sort. Flowers, small potted plants, fruits and vegetables, heirlooms, etc. can be used. Keep centerpieces low, so that they don’t interfere with conversation, and lightly scented, so that they don’t interfere with taste. Candles should always be lighted when they are used.
  6. Silver should match, and be clean and well-polished. China should match and be harmonious. Service plates can be used at formal meals, but are not necessary for family dinners. Colored, sturdy glassware is also appropriate for informal meals. Usually, the flower bowl matches the drinkware.
This is what a typical place setting at an informal family meal looks like.

How to Set the Table

  1. Before setting the table, you need to know:
    1. The menu
    2. The type of service and the occasion
    3. Number of diners
    4. Equipment to be used
  2. See that the room is dusted and orderly. Regulate the heat to about 70 degrees F, and regulate the light to avoid glare.
  3. Remove the between-meals cloth or centerpiece.
  4. Put on a silence cloth and tablecloth, or put on runner and doilies/placemats. When using a tablecloth, be sure that it fits the occasion, that all the sides are even, and that the center crease is exactly in the middle. Never use a wrinkled or soiled cloth; press before using, if necessary.
  5. Lay the silver for each place.
    1. Allow 24″-30″ width along the edge of the table for the cover (the full place setting) and 15″ depth.
    2. Try to make the covers be opposite each other along the table for balance
    3. Use only the silver necessary for the food you are serving.
    4. Place the silver in the order that it should be used, from outside in toward the plate.
    5. Place forks to the left with the tines turned up (except for oyster forks, which go to the far right). If no knives are used, then forks go on the right.
    6. Knives go to the right of the plate, with the cutting edge turned in (except for butter knives, which go on the bread plate).
    7. Spoons go to the right of the knife (or fork, if there is no knife), with the bowls turned up.
    8. All the handles should be in line 1″ from the edge of the table.
  6. Place water glass or goblet at the tip of the knife. Other beverage glasses are placed to the right of the water glass.
  7. The napkin goes to the left of the fork, with the open edge parallel to the plate, and the open corner facing the diner. Otherwise, the napkin goes on the plate with a special fold to show off the monogram. (Unfortunately for Pinterest, elaborately folded napkins are in bad taste.)
  8. When bread and butter plates are used, they are placed at the tip of the fork (on the left). The butter knife goes on the edge of the plate towards the center of the table, and parallel to the edge of the table. Bread and butter plates are not used when there is an appetizer or at a formal dinner.
  9. Salt and pepper are placed at each place, between every two places, or — when there are only one or two sets — conveniently close to the middle of the table, parallel to the table’s edge.
  10. Cream and sugar are placed with the handles toward the person who serves them or begins passing them.
  11. Ashtrays are placed to the right of the water glass before the dessert course (umm, yuck!)
  12. Dishes for sides are placed parallel to the edge of the table, with the handles toward the edge of the table. The serving silver is placed on the table next to the dish it is used for, parallel to the dish.
  13. Put chairs in position at the edge of the table, with the edge of the chair seat just under the edge of the table.

In setting the table, avoid:

  1. Diagonal lines. Everything on the table should be parallel to one edge of the table or the other.
  2. A messy-looking table. It takes no more time to set things out neatly and carefully than to be careless.
  3. Unbalanced appearance. No part of the table should be cluttered up with dishes.
  4. Unclean or “mussed” linens.
  5. Unpolished silver.
  6. Centerpieces that are too large in proportion to the sie of the table.
  7. Unnecessary china, silver, or glassware.

Pre-Service Preparations

  1. Get out all dishes to be used in the meal, and arrange them in order.
  2. Warm dishes for serving hot food. Chill dishes for cold food.
  3. Review the service in your mind and be sure that everything is ready.
  4. Prepare garnishes. Prepare ice water and butter. Dress salad and finish any last-minute items of preparation.
  5. Make sure that you (and anyone serving) looks clean and neat, that you have changed to a fresh dress, and that your hair is in order.
  6. Dish up food. (I plate each person’s meal in the kitchen, then put all the remaining food in serving dishes. If you serve all the plates at the table, then dish up the food into serving dishes.) Add garnishes.
  7. Fill water glasses. It is better to use ice to chill water in a pitcher, rather than put ice cubes in glasses.
  8. Take up the food for the first course and put it on the table.
  9. Announce the meal.

Whew! And that is how to set the table, 50s style. The 50s housewife did this for three meals a day. And she fed small children at neat little place settings in the kitchen or the nursery while she prepared the main meal for the family. That’s a lot of table setting!

Looking for Time to Set the Table Every Night?

I have a whole article on my meal planning system, including a sample order of work for preparing dinner every night.

If you feel overwhelmed by your kids, I also have a whole article about nursery meals that can help!

And if you are lost on what to do when to keep your home in order, I have an article on simple schedules.

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