A Brief History of Dining Rooms and Dining Tables

In the Ancient Roman world,  people reclined on couches to dine.  From the medieval period on though, people in the western world have dined sitting on chairs, benches or stools, and eating from tables, the way we are accustomed to it today.  From the middle ages on, and until the mid to late 1700’s, dining took place in the great hall of a large house, with the lord, or most highly-ranked person, and their family, or guests of high rank, sitting at a large table usually on a raised dais at one end of the hall. All others would be at other tables lower down. (Hence “below the salt” as salt was expensive and only placed at the high table.) Dining was a fairly public affair with the lord and his family being on show as they ate.  Desiring more privacy as time passed, dining was moved to a smaller room behind the great hall, except for more formal, or festive, holiday, occasions when the family would still dine in public.  These changes came gradually, and at differing times in different areas, but the change over time occurred throughout the western world.

     The main dining table used in a great hall was a long heavy type, on two or three pedestal bases, or, on  a trestle base, and later,  with legs at the corners and at intervals down the sides where structurally needed. 

This type of table is now usually called a “refectory” table, as a refectory is a room used for dining. The term is still used, though rarely, and usually in monasteries and convents.  

  Tables for those not at the head table, were of varying sorts, either also long tables, or perhaps an assortment of whatever was available, even perhaps just boards sitting on saw-horse type supports that were easily moved, as the hall was also used for entertainments, dancing, or other purposes, even the gathering of armed forces in times of strife.

     When dining moved to the more private room, smaller tables were needed. At first, just smaller versions of the ones found in great halls were used.  By the seventeenth century, more small yet formal houses were built, without a great hall for dining. Simultaneously, even in great houses, there was an increased desire for privacy from servants and retainers in the great hall for dining, which pushed the fashion towards dining in smaller rooms. Hence, both in great houses and smaller houses, there became a need for smaller and easily moveable tables. The “gate-leg” table then came into widespread use.  This is a table with legs that are hinged, and swing out to support sections of the top that fold up to increase the size of the table. Hence any room could be used for dining by moving the table away from the wall, setting it up, and putting chairs around it increasing the available uses of any room in a house. 

     As wealth increased and social entertainments came to include large formal dinners in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, many small tables were brought into a large room and set up by a  large staff of servants  in order to serve a large gathering.   Because of the practicality of these folding tables, they were in great demand for both grand and lesser houses. As a result, there are now a large  number of these gate-leg tables in the world. They were made in many different styles and levels of quality over a long period, some with straight “turned” legs, others with graceful curving “cabriole” legs, and later, straight “Chippendale” style legs.

  Not until the later 17 hundreds did there come into common use, the Dining Room, a room solely intended for formal dining.  It was for this new room that the formal dining table was designed, the type of table we all now associate with formal gatherings, for holidays or celebrations.  These are the extendable, usually mahogany, tables that have “leaves” that can be added or subtracted according to the size of the gathering, but the tables themselves are meant to be kept in the same position always, as the room will not be used for any other purpose.  This type of table is most commonly of a pedestal type, although there are certainly other instances of ones with legs.   It is at this style of table that we all celebrated so many Thanksgiving, birthday, and all other holiday dinners while at the houses of our parents and grandparents. (photo 4 of pedestal, and leg type).

As styles are changing, and so many of us desire a life-style not quite so formal as that of previous generations, there is a  need for a table that we can sit around at with friends and family on a regular basis without being concerned about rough treatment by children, or the rings made by hot and cold beverages. 

For this need,  the Farm-house type table has great appeal, and indeed, it is perfect for this kind of use.     

This is the style of table used in kitchens and farms for centuries, and meant for all purposes, but especially for preparing food, and eating at.  These “farm tables” were made in many styles, and in many places.  They were common here in America, in England, in France and many other countries, although those made in the three aforementioned countries seem to be most commonly found now.  

These farm tables are wonderfully practical and frequently have great character that comes from the evident hand-made nature of their construction, as well as the assorted scars and overall wear they have endured during their many years of hard use. They also were made in an endless variety of styles, in different types of wood, and assorted sizes and shapes, as they were made by rural cabinetmakers supplying local tastes and local requirements.  

I will take a more detailed look at the many types of these, ever so useful and sought after, tables in another installment.  For now; here are a few photos of some examples to peruse.     

Fritz Rohn
Fritz Rohn

Fritz’s background in art history and more that 30 years in the antiques business make him the perfect author of out monthly column ‘A Brief History Lesson’. With his seemingly boundless knowledge of European art, artifacts and furniture, Fritz spends much of his time on the road traveling around New England in search of the perfect merchandise for Montage.