1921 Table Etiquette

set table on porch or patioPhoto source: Ladies Home Journal (July, 1911)

Here’s a few table etiquette rules that appeared in a 1921 home economics textbook: 

Table Manners

  • Never go to the table unless hands and face are clean and hair is in order. 
  • Stand behind your chair until the hostess takes her seat. 
  • The napkins should be laid across the lap without being entirely opened out. Never stick the corner inside the collar. If the napkin is to be used again, fold it neatly before leaving the table. 
  • Always sit erect in the chair while eating. Keep the arms and elbows off the table. 
  • Never eat hurriedly. 
  • Do not talk when the mouth is full of food. 
  • Ask politely for dishes to be passed, rather than reach across the table. 
  • Never complain about the food. If it is not the kind desired, it need not be eaten. 
  • If it is necessary to leave the table before the others are ready, ask to be excused by the hostess. 
  • Do not talk about disagreeable things during the meal. 

Source: Elementary Home Economics (1921) by Mary Lockwood Matthews

33 thoughts on “1921 Table Etiquette

  1. Fascinating information, Sheryl. The napkin thing is a bit complicated.😀 The “Manners” easily carry forward to today. Thank you for sharing.

  2. As an accomplished cook and hostess, I find this list refreshingly polite. Wonderful to see what was considered proper one hundred years ago is still agreeable today (except I, too, found the napkin thing strange). Thank you Sheryl, great fun.

    1. It’s nice to hear that you enjoyed this post. Similarly to you, I was surprised by how many of these tips still are applicable today.

    1. Confession – I’ve actually used this picture once or twice before on this blog. It’s one of my all-time favorite pictures. It looks ike the perfect setting for a a group of friends to spend a relaxing afternoon, as they chat and share stories – and just the type of gathering that I dream of hosting this summer. 🙂

      1. I hope you are able to do so! I might want a pillow to sit on, but I do remember my grandmother having chairs like those, with the woven rope or twine bottoms.

  3. Golly! That’s 100 years old? Those are the rules we had when we were eating with others, either in our home or theirs. We were a bit more relaxed when we were dining with just the immediate family.

    1. Like you, we had similar rules at our home. I wonder if some of them have changed in recent years. For example, the one about never complain about the food, but don’t eat it if it is not desired. Today I think that it is acceptable to tell a host about diet restrictions and preferences with the expectation that the host will accommodate them.

  4. My favorite is don’t mention things you don’t like. You don’t have to eat it. That is something I have worked at with my grandchildren.

    1. Somehow I think the idea of not mentioning it when you don’t like a food has been lost across the years. I think that microwaves, pre-packaged single-serving foods, take-out foods, etc. have supported the customization of meals for each individual.

  5. There are a number of girls’ camps in the Texas hill country. One of the best-known is Waldemar, and I thought you might enjoy reading some of their bits of table etiquette — from 2018! The Waldemar girl:

    • is prompt to meals.
    • helps with the passing of plates (using two hands) and is always attentive and responsive to the requests and needs of others
    • maintains good posture and does not put her elbows on the table
    • waits until the hostess begins eating to begin her meal
    • uses her silverware correctly
    • participates in conversation but does not monopolize it. She makes an effort to be interesting and pleasant and includes all table companions, conversing only with those at her table
    • uses “please” and “thank you” when requesting and receiving food
    • remains at the table and is patient until all have finished their meal and the hostess excuses the group
    • has a positive attitude about trying new foods

    As we say down here, what goes around, comes around.

  6. One of my friends manages to spill just a little bit on his shirt at every meal. A napkin on his lap is not helpful – so another friend took a few cloth napkins and stitched a buttonhole on one corner. Now our sloppy friend can attach the corner of the napkin to the top button of his shirt.

  7. Though from. 1921, they must’ve lasted throughout the 60’s! I distinctly remember many of these strictly enforced at our dinner table. Talking with a mouthful…oh Heck no, being told to sit up in my chair, ask for someone to pass you the potatoes an never reach across the table instead and before I could get up from the table I had to ask ” may I be excused please?”
    I think these table etiquette rules died sometime after my brothers were born. Lol

    1. I remember similar rules – but somehow I never taught some of them to my own children. I’m not quite sure why I did didn’t do it. I guess that times had just changed. 🙂

  8. Growing up these rules were the standard at home and especially when visiting my grandmother!! However in Belgium the rule about arms and elbows on the table are quite different! If you have your hand in your lap they wonder what you are doing down there!!

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