Home and contents: the dining room

If much of the rest of the house was about the display of feminine respectability, the dining room was masculine in character. And I’d like to pause here for just a moment to remind you, dear reader, that this was an ideal only, and one that was predominantly the focus of the middle class. Reality could be quite different, and no doubt every household negotiated its own way through the gender roles prescribed in those times. It’s also worth noting that we’re talking about a European ideology, one that was strongly associated with countries that were part of the British Empire, or had been. How gender roles played in households from other cultures is something we’re less familiar with. One of the strengths of archaeology – and, indeed, any study of the past – is to enable us to better understand how these ideals played out in reality.

The floor plan of James and Priscilla’s house, showing the location of the dining room, with its interconnecting door to the kitchen. Image: M. Hennessey & J. Garland.

But, yes, the dining room was generally considered to be a masculine space. Other spaces were too, such as libraries, studies and smoking rooms, but these rooms weren’t generally found in the homes of the lower middle class in Aotearoa New Zealand (Tange 2010: 137). Furthermore, these were private spaces, whereas dining rooms were not. They were public spaces where people were entertained over, well, dinner. And, part of the point of the dining room was that it was where masculinity could be displayed publicly, so that guests could see that the man of the house was performing that role successfully (and thus the family as a whole was conforming to the ideals of the day). The foundation of this masculine role was that the man of the family earned enough so that his wife could arrange an appropriate dinner, served on appropriate dishes, and decorate the room in the appropriate way. Of course, her role in this generally went unacknowledged (Tange 2010: 157). The man of the house was also expected to be a gracious host – genial, interested and interesting. The room tended to be decorated in a ‘masculine’ fashion, with heavy furniture in dark colours and dark furnishings (Tange 2010: 148).

Priscilla and James’s dining room. The window at right was not original, although the position of the window was. Image: M. Hennessy.

We cannot know exactly what the Chalmers’s dining room looked like, nor how often (or indeed, if) they entertained people for dinner, but there are subtle indications in the room that it was perhaps more decorative than either of the two bedrooms. This may indicate that it was seen as a public space and used as such, in spite of being behind the hall arch that separated the public and private spaces in the house. And the position of the dining room in this house indicates some of the complexities when it came to conforming with the separation of public and private, and the decisions that needed to be made with regard to what room went where, and whether the dining room or the master bedroom should be in front of the hall arch. Of course, James and Priscilla’s dining room was close to the kitchen in this position behind the arch (in fact, there was an interconnecting door).

The dining room fireplace, which was just ever-so-slightly more decorative than the bedroom fireplaces. Image: M. Hennessey.

The subtle differences that indicated that this room was perhaps seen as a public space related to the fireplace, which was the only original feature that remained in the room. You might remember that the fireplaces in the two bedrooms were identical, and slightly less decorative than that in the parlour. The fireplace in the dining room wasn’t quite as decorative as that in the parlour but was more so than those in the bedrooms, just in the details of the mantelpiece, where there was additional timber moulding above the fire and the bases of the mantelpiece legs were moulded in the same way as the skirting boards. Such small details, and their small nature perhaps reflects that Priscilla and James did not have the budget for more elaborate ornamentation – or preferred to spend their money on other things that they valued more.

It’s possible that they relied on the material culture of the room to provide the more elaborate ornamentation that was missing from the architectural details. As with the other public spaces of the house, it’s likely that ornamental objects played a role in the dining room, although perhaps not so great a role as in the parlour. Lighting is likely to have been fairly good, more on par with the parlour than the bedrooms, and would probably have included fixed wall lamps as well as candlesticks, or portable lamps, on the mantel and/or table. Along with the table, the room may have included a display cabinet or similar piece, inside which the best material culture of the household could be displayed.

Most of the objects used within this room, however, would have been associated with the primary function of the room: dining. And, as is the case in many modern households, there was a significant and substantial material culture associated with the behaviours of food consumption, and ‘dining’, both publicly and privately. The ritual and structure of dining in the late nineteenth century, especially in a more public setting, was very much linked to social influences like class. For the middle classes, like James and Priscilla, conscious or unconsciously, these included ideas of gentility, respectability and order, all of which had an effect not just on the appearance of the objects they used at the dinner table, but the actual vessels themselves (Fitts 1999; Wall 1999).

Cutlery! Surprisingly uncommon finds, when you think about how much they’re used, day to day. A lot of these examples were found in underfloor deposits, beneath houses, where the dry environment would have helped the survival of the metal. Image: J. Garland, C. Dickson, G. Jackson.

For example, the use of individual dishes, and specialised vessels – like soup plates – for particular foods is not something European/colonial households had always done. In the eighteenth century, somewhere like colonial America, it would have been more common to eat from communal vessels (Fitts 1999: 52), or to have a single vessel from which most foods could be eaten. By the nineteenth century, however, a much greater variety of vessels were required to present the dining table that James and Priscilla’s guests would have expected. One study I’ve read (American, rather than New Zealand, so apply with caution) suggests that the basic middle class table ware set of the late nineteenth century should have contained: dinner plates, soup plates, twifflers (a kind of smaller plate with a name that never fails to amuse me), muffin plates, sauce tureens, a soup tureen, various platters, covered serving dishes, open serving dishes, bakers, a butter dish, a pitcher and a gravy boat (Fitts 1999: 53). It’s a lot, especially if, as was sometimes the case, the Chalmers’s owned two dinner sets – one for entertaining and one for private use within the household.

As many components of an Asiatic Pheasants patterned dinner set as I could find. The vessels in this image come from a variety of household and retail sites in Christchurch, as no single site we’ve ever excavated has had a complete dining set amongst the artefacts. With the exception of platters, serving wares are generally rare in the archaeological record, especially when compared to plates. This may be because they were repaired and retained if they were damaged, or were handled less and therefore less frequently broken. It’s not clear whether James and Priscilla had a dining set this large, but they’re likely to have owned several of these vessel types. It’s even possible they owned them in this pattern, which was one of the most popular and easily accessible of the second half of the nineteenth century. Top row, left to right: large meat platter; two smaller platters; ceramic ladle. Middle row: small serving or baking dish; circular vegetable or serving dish with cover; three dinner plates. Bottom row: three small plates (equivalent of twiffler or muffin plates); three large dinner plates. Image: J. Garland, M. Lillo Bernabeu, C. Dickson.

Social expectations, particularly for the middle class, also affected the appearance of the vessels used at the dining table – specifically, the need for them to match. Ownership and use of a matching dinner set among Victorian era middle class households is in part linked to a middle-class ideal that drew heavily on order and regularity (Fitts 1999: 54). Having a matched set was about more than just the aesthetic appeal – it was about the ability to present an ordered, neat, respectable household through material culture. There’s also an idea that, among a family, or at a dinner party, using a matched set of vessels emphasises the communal experience of eating together, which I find interesting (Wall 1999: 113).

Components of a dinner set decorated with red banding. While, like the Asiatic Pheasants image above, these were gathered from different household assemblages, several of them were actually found on the same site, underneath a the floorboards of a house built in 1879. Note the matching gravy boat and pitcher (bottom right). Images: J. Garland, G. Jackson.

It’s quite possible that the Chalmers would also have owned glassware for use in the dining room, from tumblers, and wine glasses to table pitchers or even glass dishes for desserts and sweets. Tumblers, and even wine glasses are not uncommon finds, but glass dishes and serving vessels are relatively infrequently found on Christchurch domestic sites, so I’m not clear on how many households actually used them. That said, a large number of stemmed glasses, dishes and ‘unusual’ glassware were found on the site of a nineteenth century shop a couple of years ago, so we do know they were available to consumers.

Selected glassware that might have been used in a nineteenth century dining room, from a variety of Christchurch sites. Top row, left to right: stemmed drinking vessels and a small rectangular glass dish, possibly used for compote, or sweets. Bottom row: tumblers, the handle from a glass pitcher, and another stemmed drinking vessel. Image: J. Garland, M. Lillo Bernabeu, G. Jackson.

Of course, dinner wasn’t the only meal that might have been eaten in the dining room, and the material culture of breakfast and lunch differed from that of dinner, formal or not. Breakfast, in particular, had its own associated set of vessels. I’m not going to talk too much about particular types of food in this post (you’ll have to check back for the kitchen and pantry posts to see that), but it’s important to note that the breakfast of the nineteenth century probably didn’t resemble modern ideas of breakfast, either in foods consumed or in the vessels used to eat it. Cooked breakfasts and savoury foods were more of a thing (including last night’s leftovers) and modern breakfast staples like cereal and toast were not as common as they are now. Ceramic “breakfast sets” were sold alongside dinner sets: these might have been made of bone china, instead of earthenware, and included small plates and eggcups alongside matching teacups and saucers. It’s no real surprise, is it, given the number of objects associated with the consumption of food (and how much they would have been used), that tea and table wares are among the artefacts most frequently found in the archaeological record.

Elements of a bone china breakfast set decorated with pink enamel and gilt bands. These pieces were found on the same site, suggesting that they did all actually belong to the same set. Top, left to right: side plate, saucer, teacup. Bottom: saucer, teacup, teacup, eggcup. Image: G. Jackson and J. Garland.

Katharine & Jessie

References

Flanders, Judith. The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. London: HarperCollins, 2003.

Fitts, R. K., 1999. ‘The Archaeology of Middle-Class Domesticity and Gentility in Victorian Brooklyn.’ In Historical Archaeology, Vol. 33(1), Confronting Class, pp. 39-62.

Tange, Andrea Kaston. Architectural Identities: Domesticity, Literature and the Victorian Middle Classes. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. doi:10.3138/j.ctt2ttkx9.

Wall, D., 1999. ‘Examining Gender, Class and Ethnicity in Nineteenth-Century New York City.’ In Historical Archaeology, Vol. 33(1), Confronting Class, pp. 102-117.

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