The Evolution of the Dining Room Through the Ages

By Bill Primavera

In my current home, as well as the one before that, I have enjoyed having large dining rooms. But in my first apartment in Manhattan, I had only a small eating area off the kitchen containing a chrome dinette set that I had purchased for $35 in the bargain basement of Macy’s (the price of which should give you some idea of how long ago I moved to New York).

That small dining accommodation saw a lot more action than my current commodious space due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I can’t remember the last time my family or friends have gathered around our large glass top dining table which comfortably accommodates six to eight people. My wife would remember, but I don’t. That’s just one of the ways men and women differ.

What were the origins of today’s formal dining room? In centuries past, dining rooms were something of a novelty. Only the wealthy had them.

The Greeks were among the first to recognize that eating in secluded comfort reinforced status and class distinction. Elite men – and not women – gathered in rooms especially designed for feasting. These rooms accommodated couches of stone or wood, each of which accommodated one or two men. Youths sat on the ground.                 

Ancient Romans similarly ate their meals in a special room called a triclinium, where couches had evolved to accommodate women as well as men. The Romans sometimes set up their dining rooms outdoors in order to enjoy delicacies al fresco. Triclinia in Pompeii featured fountains from which water splashed and streamed from each table.

Such vivid appointments obscured a reality that was very dark. A well-to-do Roman household could include as many as 400 slaves, who did everything from choosing menus to arranging and presenting parting gifts to guests. The slightest faux pas invited brutal punishment. If, writes historian Roy Strong, “game was underdone or the fish poorly seasoned, the cook (who actually ranked fairly high in the slave hierarchy) would be stripped and beaten.”

Strong relates an instance during a dinner given by a friend of the Emperor Augustus. A cupbearer broke a crystal goblet. For this offense he had his hands cut off and hung from his neck. He was then forced to parade among the diners, and thereafter thrown alive in a fish pond as food for lampreys. Quite severe, considering that today we would just leave a bad tip.

Eventually, the nobility began to favor more intimate gatherings in parlors off the main hall. This type of dining allowed greater comfort to the diners and was well-suited to the political intrigue of the times. As time went by, the dining room evolved along with the dining room table, and it was increasingly located farther from the Great Hall. Eventually, the Great Hall was reserved for special occasions.

In the Middle Ages, dining room tables were portable and long, made to seat everyone in the castle. Dining was done in the Great Hall, a large, multifunctional room that could accommodate the entire population of the castle. The family sat at the main table on a raised dais and the rest of the household was seated in order of rank. The dining room furniture consisted of long trestle tables with benches.

It’s hard to imagine a time when a dining room table wasn’t the focal point of the dining room. But throughout much of history, people dined on small tables or stone platforms rather than large dining room tables. Tables were used for writing and playing games, not for dining.

It wasn’t until the 16th century that dining room tables really became popular. The word itself is derived from the Latin tabula, which means plank, board or flat piece. Although many types of tables had been around since ancient times, they were not the dining room tables we know today.

In most homes you’ll find the dining room table near or in the kitchen or in the great room. However, that was not always the case. Historically, the dining room and kitchen were far from each other, on a different floor and sometimes even in a different building.

When I worked in Colonial Williamsburg (as a waiter at the King’s Arms Tavern), I found that kitchens were normally in a separate building from dining space, and the same is true with historic preservation sites we enjoy in the Hudson Valley.  This makes sense, as kitchens tended to get extremely hot and were sometimes the cause of house fires. 

Bill Primavera, while a writer and editor, is also a realtor associated with William Raveis Real Estate and founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc. (www.PrimaveraPR.com). His real estate site is www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com. To engage the talents and services of The Home Guru to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.

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