Everything on the table must be geometrically spaced; the centerpiece in the actual center, the “places” at equal distances, and all utensils balanced; beyond this one rule you may set your table as you choose.
If the tablecloth is of white damask, which for dinner is always good style, a “felt” must be put under it. (To say that it must be smooth and white, in other words perfectly laundered, is as beside the mark as to say that faces and hands should be clean!) If the tablecloth has lace insertions, it must on no account be put over satin or over a color. In a very “important” dining-room and on a very large table, a cloth of plain and finest quality damask with no trimming other than a monogram (or crest) embroidered on either side, is in better taste than one of linen with elaborations of lace and embroidery. Damask is the old-fashioned but essentially conservative (and safely best style) tablecloth, especially suitable in a high-ceilinged room that is either English, French, or of no special period, in decoration. Lace tablecloths are better suited to an Italian room—especially if the table is a refectory one. Handkerchief linen tablecloths embroidered and lace-inserted are also, strangely enough, suited to all quaint, low-ceilinged, old-fashioned but beautifully appointed rooms; the reason being that the lace cloth is put over a bare table. The lace cloth must also go over a refectory table without felt or other lining.
Very high-studded rooms (unless Italian) on the other hand, seem to need the thickness of damask. To be sure, one does see in certain houses—at the Gildings’ for instance—an elaborate lace and embroidery tablecloth put on top of a plain one which in turn goes over a felt, but this combination is always somewhat overpowering, whereas lace over a bare table is light and fragile.
Another thing—very ornate, large, and arabesqued designs, no matter how marvellous as examples of workmanship, inevitably produce a vulgar effect.
All needlework, whether to be used on the table or on a bed, must, in a beautifully finished house, be fine rather than striking. Coarse linen, coarse embroideries, all sorts of Russian drawn-work, Italian needlework or mosaic (but avoiding big scrolled patterns), are in perfect keeping—and therefore in good taste—in a cottage, a bungalow or a house whose furnishings are not too fine.
But whatever type of cloth is used, the middle crease must be put on so that it is an absolutely straight and unwavering line down the exact center from head to foot. If it is an embroidered one, be sure the embroidery is “right side out.” Next goes the centerpiece which is always the chief ornament. Usually this is an arrangement of flowers in either a bowl or a vase, but it can be any one of an almost unlimited variety of things; flowers or fruit in any arrangement that taste and ingenuity can devise; or an ornament in silver that needs no flowers, such as a covered cup; or an epergne, which, however, necessitates the use of fruit, flowers or candy. Mrs. Wellborn, for instance, whose heirlooms are better than her income, rarely uses flowers, but has a wonderful old centerpiece that is ornament enough in itself. The foundation is a mirror representing a lake, surrounded by silver rocks and grass. At one side, jutting into the lake, is a knoll with a group of trees sheltering a stag and doe. The ornament is entirely of silver, almost twenty inches high, and about twenty inches in diameter across the “lake.”
A cloth laid straight; then a centerpiece put in the middle; then four candlesticks at the four corners, about half-way between the center and the edge of the table, or two candelabra at either end halfway between the places of the host and hostess and the centerpiece. Candles are used with or without shades. Fashion at the moment, says “without,” which means that, in order to bring the flame well above people’s eyes, candlesticks or candelabra must be high and the candles as long as the proportion can stand. Longer candles can be put in massive candlesticks than in fragile ones. But whether shaded or not, there are candles on all dinner tables always! The center droplight has gone out entirely. Electroliers in candlesticks were never good style, and kerosene lamps in candlesticks—horrible! Fashion says, “Candles! preferably without shades, but shades if you insist, and few or many—but candles!”
Next comes the setting of the places. (If it is an extension table, leaves have, of course, been put in; or if it is stationary, guests have been invited according to its size.) The distance between places at the table must never be so short that guests have no elbow room, and that the servants can not pass the dishes properly; when the dining-room chairs are very high backed and are placed so close as to be almost touching, it is impossible for them not to risk spilling something over some one. On the other hand, to place people a yard or more apart so that conversation has to be shouted into the din made by everyone else’s shouting, is equally trying. About two feet from plate center to plate center is ideal. If the chairs have narrow and low backs, people can sit much closer together, especially at a small round table, the curve of which leaves a spreading wedge of space between the chairs at the back even if the seats touch at the front corners. But on the long straight sides of a rectangular table in a very large—and impressive—dining-room there should be at least a foot of space between the chairs.