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Charm School: Table Manners for Young People, circa 1846

family dinner“Did it ever occur to you to inquire why civilized people have their food prepared at particular hours, and all the family sit together? Why not have the food prepared and placed where everyone can go and eat, whenever he pleases, by himself? One great advantage of having a whole family sit together, and partake of their meals at the same time, is that it brings them together in a social way, every day. But for this, and the assembling of the family at prayers, they might not all meet at once for a long time. But eating together is a mark of friendship; it tends to promote social feeling. In a well-regulated family, also, it is a means of great improvement, both of mind and manners. Your behavior at table should always be regulated by the rules of propriety. If you acquire vulgar habits here, or practice rudeness, you will find it difficult to overcome them; and they will make you appear to great disadvantage.

First of all, be not tardy in taking your place at the table. In a well-regulated family, the master of the family waits till all are seated before he asks a blessing. When called to a meal, never wait to finish what you are doing, but promptly leave it, and proceed to your place. Above all, do not delay till after the blessing, and so sit down to your food like a heathen.

The younger members of the family should leave it for the parents (and guests, if there are any) to take the lead in conversation. It does not appear well for a very young person to be forward and talkative at table. You should generally wait till you are spoken to; or if you wish to make an inquiry or a remark, do it in a modest, unassuming way, not raising your voice, nor spinning out a story. Be especially careful not to interrupt a person. Sensible people will get a very unfavorable impression concerning you, if they see you bold and talkative at table. Yet you should never appear inattentive to what others are saying.

To be very particular in the choice of food is not agreeable to good breeding. Never ask for what is not on the table. Do not make remarks respecting the food, and avoid expressing your likes and dislikes of particular articles. Show your praise of the food set before you, by the good nature and relish with which you partake of it; but do not eat so fast as to appear voracious. Never put on sour looks, nor turn up your nose at your food. this is unmannerly and a serious affront to the mistress of the table. Be careful to use your knife and fork as other people do, and to know when to lay them down. Be careful not to drop your food, nor to spill liquids on the cloth. Do ynot leave the table before the family withdraws from it, unless¬† it is necessary; and then, ask to be excused.”

(from How to Be a Lady: Useful Hints on the Formation of Womanly Character, published in 1846. written by Harvey Newcomb, an American clergyman who was active in the American Sunday School Union and had a heart for young people.)

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