This section is from the book "Elements Of The Theory And Practice Of Cookery", by Mary E. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Elements Of The Theory And Practice Of Cookery; A Textbook Of Domestic Science For Use In Schools.
First lay a "silence-cloth" (felt or thick canton flannel or a quilted pad) to protect the wood and make the table-cloth look and wear better. Lay the table-cloth with its middle crease straight down the middle of the table. See that the ends hang evenly. Doilies and a centre-piece, or strips of crash or of figured Japanese toweling are desirable for breakfast or lunch. With these asbestos mats in linen cases or knitted mats must be used under hot dishes. Under some conditions the sensible housekeeper will use white table oilcloth. If the table is otherwise well set, it will look well. Wash it off after each meal.
Fruit or flowers always look well in the centre of the table. Nothing else should ever be placed there. If a lamp must be on the table, have it at one side, shaded. If candlesticks are used, place them symmetrically at equal distances from the centre. Four candles should stand at the four corners of an imaginary square. For entertaining formally, more decoration is allowable. But even then, avoid elaborate and showy arrangements. Heavy plain linen, sprays of smilax, holly, or whatever appropriate floral decoration the hostess can afford, produce a better effect than the lace, ribbon, favors, and general " fussiness" sometimes seen.
If meat is to be carved on the table, spread a large napkin or a carving-cloth at the carver's place. If a hot drink is to be poured by the hostess,1 spread a tray-cloth (or a napkin) at her place. If doilies are used under small dishes, arrange them symmetrically.
1 For brevity, the master and mistress of the house will be called the host and hostess.
At each place lay a knife with its sharp edge toward the right. At the right of the knife lay, if needed, a soup spoon or a cereal spoon, the hollow of the bowl upward, and teaspoons, as many as will be needed. At the left of the plate lay a fork (or two, or three, according to the number of courses to be eaten with forks), the tines pointing upward; at the left of the fork a napkin. Put the tumbler, right side up, at the right and the butter plate or the bread-and-butter plate at the left. If butter spreaders are used, place them as shown in the diagram. A good rule is to place the tumbler a little to the right of the point of the knife, the butter plate a little to the left of the point of the fork. If individual salts and peppers are used, set them in front of each plate.
If tea or coffee is poured on the table, arrange in front of the hostess cream-pitcher, sugar-bowl, waste-bowl, and cups and saucers (each cup upright in its saucer if there is room). Tiles (or small plates) should be placed for coffee or tea pot and hot-water pot.
If the family serve themselves wholly or in part, lay convenient to each person who is to serve, the spoons or other implements he will need. Hot plates may be piled at the left of the person who serves the principal dish. Extra dishes, spoons, etc. should be arranged upon the side-board or upon a side-table covered with white linen. If a maid waits she may bring carving-tools, spoons, etc. when she brings the dishes. Mats or tiles should be provided to protect table and side-board from hot dishes.
Have butter cut in a block or made into balls ready in a cool place. Slice bread (with loaf on its side so that straight bottom edge is from you, to guide the eye) and keep it where it will not dry. Put these and the drinking-water on the table the last thing, placing them near the corners.
When everything needed for the meal is at hand and space is clear in pantry or kitchen to set dishes as they are removed from the table, announce the meal. In families living simply, a bell may be rung ; where there is a waitress, she goes to the room where the hostess is and says quietly, "Dinner (or breakfast, or lunch) is served." Even where only one maid is kept, she should do this when guests have been invited to the meal.
In laying knives and forks for several courses arrange them in the order in which they are to be used, the first to be taken up being farthest from the plate. Oyster forks belong at the right hand.
Fresh napkins (not in rings) may be laid on the plates, with a corner towards the centre of the table. If they bear an initial or monogram see that it is right side up. Never fold napkins in fancy shapes. A roll, or bread cut thick to be eaten with soup, may be laid either between the folds of the napkin or at the left of the forks.
Table-laying gives you a chance to apply what you have learned in school about the meaning of the terms "parallel," "opposite," "at right angles," and the like. Places on opposite sides of the table should be laid exactly opposite one another, the knife at one place being in the same straight line with the fork at the other. If you can measure by your eye in drawing you can lay a place exactly in the middle of one side of the table and can have every tumbler in the same relative position to the plate near which it stands. Should you fortunately have a choice of table-ware, use care in selecting and arranging the pieces for a meal, just as you would in making an original design.
Finger-bowls may be used after a fruit-course at break-fast and after dessert. Fill them one-third full of water at room-temperature, and set them on small plates on which doilies have been laid. At dessert-time place one before each guest. The guest will remove bowl and doily, leaving the plate for dessert. Sometimes a spoon and a fork are laid on the plate, to left and right of the bowl. The guest also removes these. If fruit is at each place when the guests come to breakfast, the finger-bowl, with or without a plate and doily, may be placed in front and to the left of each place.
Ways of serving meals vary with conditions and change with time. Use a recent hand-book as a guide in this matter.