This section is from the book "The American Woman's Cook Book", by Ruth Berolzheimer. Also available from Amazon: The Domestic Arts Edition of the American Woman's Cook Book.
Methods - There are three methods of table service. The one often preferred is the left hand service, that is, the placing, passing, and removing of all dishes at the left. Beverages are, of course, an exception, and these are placed at the right. In the left hand service, the waitress uses the hand farthest from the guest, that is, the left hand. The left hand service permits the guest to use his right hand in helping himself. In the right hand service the waitress places and removes all dishes from the right, using the right hand, but she passes a dish at the left, using her left hand. Often a combination of these two services is used: that is, the dishes are placed and passed at the left, and plates are removed from the right. A hostess decides which method seems to her the easiest and most practical for her household, and directs her service accordingly.
Order of Service - In many houses the hostess is served first. This is a relic of the old custom of taking it for granted that the giver of the feast prove the absence of poison by first tasting of the food or drinking of the beverage! Some hostesses too justify this custom by maintaining that, when complicated foods are served, the hostess indicates to her guests the methods by which they can most conveniently serve themselves.
However, the custom of serving the honor guest first is growing, and many hostesses now insist on giving the chief guest this additional compliment.
The former custom of serving all the ladies first and the gentlemen afterward is no longer in vogue, for this method consumed too much time and delayed the service. Now guests are served in the order in which they are seated, usually beginning with the honor guest or the hostess and proceeding to the right.
The Ever-Present Plate - It is an important rule of good service that there must be a plate before each guest until the salad course is removed. As soon as one plate is removed, another is put in its place. The first course - if a pre-soup course - is either served from a large dish, in which case a plate is placed for it on the cover plate, or is brought in on a plate which is set on the cover plate already on the table.
When the first course is removed the soup plate is set on the cover plate. Then, if the next course - an entree, or fish, or the main course - is, as usual, to be served on a heated plate, the service plate is removed with the soup plate as this heated plate is put before the guest.
The "Service Napkin" - On the palm of her left hand, under the dish that she is passing, the waitress holds a napkin folded in a square - the so-called "service napkin" or "serving napkin." She does not use a tray to bring dishes to the table or to remove them from the table.
Using a Tray - When a waitress is passing two or three small articles such as the cream-pitcher and sugar-bowl, or extra pieces of silver, she uses a serving-tray, with a doily on it to keep the articles from slipping.
Filling Glasses - Water glasses are filled three-fourths full. The water pitcher should be three-fourths full. When a glass is being filled it should not be lifted from the table. If necessary, the waitress uses a napkin to catch the drip. Beverages are placed and glasses are filled at the right.
Knives and Spoons are placed at the right, and forks are placed at the left.
Before Passing a Dish to a Guest the waitress should see that adequate silver is placed on the dish - usually a serving-fork on the left and a serving-spoon on the right - in a convenient position. She should, if necessary, rearrange the silver before offering the dish to the guest.
Food Should be Placed on the Table, passed, and removed in the order of its importance in the course.
If a Salad is Served With the Meat Course, it is placed on the more convenient side of the plate. If there is no extra glass on the right side, it is usually more convenient to the guest to have the salad placed on the right.
Hot Food Should be Served Hot on heated dishes.
Cold Food Should be Served Cold on cold dishes.
In the Maid-Less Household, the hostess will find great convenience in the tea-wagon or any other kind of serving-table that may stand at her right, ready to help her.
Before the Dessert Course, the table should be cleared and crumbed. The salts and peppers, the bread and butter plates, and all other accessories or dishes that will not be used in the dessert course, are removed on a tray. When the table is crumbed a small folded napkin and a plate should be used, and the crumb-clearing is done at the left of the guest.
At the End of the Coffee Course, the cups are exchanged for finger bowls if these were not placed with the dessert.
There is Increasing Inclination to serve after-dinner coffee in the drawing room, living room or the library. The plan has many advantages. The original reason was to give guests more freedom and more luxury - dining-room chairs are stiff at best. But in large families, young adults and children are eager to be excused - the former for their own plans and the latter have school work to do, besides which they do not or should not drink coffee. The adults want to continue their discussions without interruption, while they have coffee, liqueurs and smokes at their leisure.
Besides, in many American homes, servants come in by the day or the hour. Serving coffee in the living room, in addition to the comfort it gives host and guests, allows maids to finish the cleaning-up process with more speed and care as well as more freedom. The coffee service can be done last or even left until morning without catastrophe. In the maidless home, the dining-room doors can be closed, the lights turned out and both hostess and guests forget the work that awaits the former, in the glow of the larger, more comfortable and less formal living room. Moreover, in many modern homes the dining room has disappeared and its function taken over by an enlarged living room, with or without a dining alcove or solarium but almost always when there is a garden, by the terrace used for meals out of doors. In homes with this arrangement there should be an appropriate screen to set around the table used for dining, when the guests move into the living room proper or onto the terrace. Often when there is a dining alcove, these screens are attached to opposing walls as permanent fixtures of the room, and need only to be swung out to meet around the disheveled table. For less formal entertaining see page 724.