If a butler be engaged to do the family serving and waiting, he understands his business, or he should not apply for the place. The rules written out here are for the benefit of households where but one or, at the most, two maids are kept. I assume that the waitress takes charge of the table after the mistress has once shown her how it is to be set.
By the way, I hope you call her a "maid," not a "girl." The latter word has been so rubbed and soiled by persistent usage on the part of domesticated foreigners, who shed the name of "servant" as soon as they stamp upon American soil, and by the handling of would-be "genteel" housewives, that people of refinement hesitate to touch it. What the old-fashioned New Englanders called "hired help" would shake the dust off the soles of the shoes they are not yet quite used to wearing, were you to allude to them as "servants." "Maid" sounds well, bearing to their tickled ears a certain dignity not unsuited to their new estate.
A fruit-plate, holding a doily, on which is a finger-bowl half-filled with water, cold in summer, tepid in winter, is set for each person. If fruit that requires paring or cutting is to be eaten, lay a fruit-knife on the plate. If oranges are served, add an orange-spoon. At the right of the plate are the water tumbler, a knife, with the sharp edge toward the plate, and a cereal-spoon, bowl upward. At the left should be the bread-and-butter plate, the fork, tines upward, and a folded napkin.
In front of each plate are a pepper-cruet and a salt-cellar.
In the center of the board have a bowl of flowers, or something green and growing, all the year round. At the foot, carving-knife and fork, a steel or other "sharpener," and a tablespoon; unless you have a polished table, cover it with a neat breakfast-cloth, using napkins ("serviettes") to match. If your table-top be at all presentable, lay a hemstitched or embroidered square of linen - sold as a "breakfast or luncheon square" - in the center, and under each plate a doily of the same style. A thick mat to protect the varnish against the heated meat dish; a carafe, or glass pitcher, of ice-water on each side of the table, and the tea and coffee equipage at the head, complete the preparations for serving.
The basket, or dish of fruit, is handed from the sideboard where are arranged tablespoons, the glass or silver tub of broken ice to replenish glasses, and, if there are no carafes on the table, a pitcher of iced water, with a relay of knives and forks in case an extra supply should be required on account of accidents.
At the last minute, before the mistress is told at the sitting-room door that "breakfast is on," the glasses are filled with iced water, a firm ball of butter and a freshly-cut slice of bread are laid upon the small plate at the left of each place.
When the family and guests are seated, the waitress, dressed in a neat gingham or print gown, a clean apron, with bretelles, bib and full skirt, and a white cap pinned above orderly hair (not used to cloak unkempt elf-locks), passes the fruit basket or dish to the mistress of the house from the left side; then to each person at table.
The fruit eaten, let the waitress, beginning as before, at the head of the table, take from the right side of each person, plate, knife and spoon in one hand, finger-bowl in the other, and remove to a side table, or to the "waitress's pantry," where they are to be washed. Never pile plates and saucers upon one another, or upon a tray. The habit is slovenly and lazy. Still more displeasing is the scraping of plates at the side table, or within hearing of the eaters.
If the cereal be cooked, it is usually served by the mistress of the house. In this case set the hot dish upon a mat beside or before her, when you have put a cereal saucer with a plate under it before each person. Have a tray, with a napkin or doily within it, ready to receive each saucer as it is filled; offer to the eaters from the left, and when all are served pass sugar and cream on the tray.
When the cereal has been discussed, remove first the dish, then the saucers, and bring in hot plates, quickly and dexterously setting one before each person. They should have been warmed through slowly in the kitchen, but not be so hot as to draw the varnish through the doilies. Next set the dish of hot meat, chicken or fish, in front of the carver. As each portion is laid upon a plate, the plate is set upon the tray you hold. Taking the plate in your hand when you reach the mistress of the house, set it down before her from the right.
There need be no confusion in this much-debated question of "left and right" if the waitress will bear in mind one simple rule: When plate, cup or other article is to be taken from the tray by the eater, or he is to help himself from an offered dish, the waitress must stand on his left, that he may use his right hand freely. What the waitress puts upon the table with her own hand must be done from the right.
For example, the plate with meat on it is set down from the right of the person who is thus served. He takes his cup of coffee and helps himself to sugar and cream from the left.
Before the waitress leaves the breakfast-room for the pantry, if she does not remain throughout the meal, let her replenish glasses with water and ice, pass bread or muffins a second time, and if cups are emptied, offer her tray to take them back to the head of the table to be refilled. Should she begin to wash plates and saucers in the adjoining pantry to save time, let this be done very quietly. The rattle of china is not a musical accompaniment to table-talk.
The manner of setting the table and waiting at luncheon is substantially the same as at breakfast. Dinner demands certain variations, while the general principles are the same.
The waitress of to-day has a dinner uniform, decorous in all, becoming to a large majority of women. She wears a black gown, deep white cuffs and collar, and an apron of finer material and somewhat more ornate in fashion than in the forenoon.
Under the damask table-cloth is laid a covering of felt made for this purpose - sold as "table-felt," or a "silence-cloth." The linen cover lies more smoothly over this and appears to be of better texture than when spread upon bare boards. Besides the damask table-cloth, a "carving square" is laid at the foot of the table, and under it a thick mat on which the hot dish may stand. On this are carving-knife, fork and "steel;" also tablespoon and gravy ladle, leaving room between for the large dish. A cold plate stands at each place, to be taken up when the hot is set down by the waitress. At the right of the plate lie the soupspoon, bowl uppermost, two knives, edges turned toward the plate, and a fish-knife (if there is to be fish) beyond the dinner-knives. A tumbler for water, and, if wine is used, glasses for this, stand also on the right, a little beyond the array of knives.
Some prefer to lay the soup-spoon at right angles to the knives, and back of where the plate is to be.
At the left of the plate have two large forks; then one for fish, and outside of this an oyster-fork, if there are to be raw oysters. The napkin, folded flat, and inclosing a slice of bread, cut thicker and narrower than for breakfast, lies also on the left.
Plates for the several courses are in array on the sideboard, except such as must be brought hot from the kitchen. Salad plates and those for dessert stand in order. Saucers for ices are set upon plates lined with doilies. Fruit plates are also supplied with doilies, on which are finger-bowls half-full of water.
A side table is reserved for vegetable dishes. They are not placed upon the principal table now, even at the daily family dinner. Pickles and olives are on the dinner-table; carafes of water, and always flowers.
Some housewives have soup served in hot plates directly from the kitchen. If the tureen be used instead, the mistress preferring to pour it out herself, have a carving-cloth at that end of the table also. The soup ladle lies at her right. As she ladles out the soup it is set on the waitress's tray. She takes it off with her hand and puts it from the right before any guest who may be present; then the family in turn. At a dinner party; those on the right of the hostess are served first. The soup-plate is set upon the cold plate in front of the eater, and when removed is taken from the right, leaving the lower stationary cold plate in its place, until the fish comes, when it is exchanged for a hot one.
In clearing the table after each course the soup-tureen, and in its turn the large dish at the foot of the table go out first, the soiled plates afterward.
Before the dessert is brought in, crumb the table, using a clean folded napkin, when you have cleared the cloth of salt, pepper, pickles, etc.
After the sweets comes the coffee. This is often sent to the guests into the drawing-room. In this case, the waitress covers a large tray with a white napkin, arranges the filled cups, smoking hot, upon it, sets the sugar in the middle and takes the whole into the room where the party is assembled.
Liqueur-glasses follow the coffee, and are also carried into drawing-room or library. In announcing to the mistress, in sitting-room or elsewhere, that a meal is ready, the waitress says, "Breakfast is on," or "Luncheon is ready," or "Dinner is served" - according to modern usage. One frightened unfortunate, on duty at a trial-dinner party, filled the hostess with confusion, the guests with secret amusement, by rattling off all three formulas in a breath.
It is impossible to write out rules that will meet every form and exigency of "entertaining." The hostess who, having mastered the leading principles here given, trains her waitress into the daily practice of them, insisting that her family shall be served three times a day in the right order, and as punctiliously as if a state banquet were the business of the hour, need fear no embarrassing "situations," no matter how large the number, nor how important the stations of her guests.