Friday, August 17, 2012

A Bit About Meals

Meals in the 19th Century were a bit different from what you are used to today. To begin with, people ate those meals at different times than you do.
Source: History magazine: "What Time is Dinner?" Oct/Nov 2001
By beginning of the century, the upper class was rising from bed around ten a.m. or noon, and then eating breakfast at an hour when their grandparents had eaten dinner. They ate their dinner at perhaps five or six p.m. Then came supper, sometime between nine p.m. and two a.m.! The rich, famous and fashionable did not go to bed until dawn. 

Some upper-class individuals did get up earlier, children for instance and sometimes their mothers. Ladies, tired of the long wait until dinner, had established luncheon as a regular meal by about 1810. It was a light meal, of dainty sandwiches and cakes, held at noon or one (or even later), but always between breakfast and dinner. And it was definitely a ladies' meal; when the Prince of Wales established a habit of lunching with ladies, he was ridiculed for his effeminate ways, as well as his large appetite. Real men didn't do lunch, at least not until the Victorian era.

It was not exactly what we would consider an effeminate meal, however. There are records of society ladies taking luncheon at inns in this period, drinking cider, ale and beer with their lunch, something we don't normally think of "ladies" as doing. 

Since the middle classes were still eating dinner in midday for the most part, they had no room for luncheon in their day. But that was changing. By the 1800's, the development of factories -- and then trains and streetcars -- shifted things around. People began to work further from home, and the midday meal had to become something light, whatever they could carry to work. The main meal, still usually called dinner, was pushed to the evening hours after work, when they could get home for a full meal.

So, many people in the middle and lower class began to eat dinner in the evening as the nobles and gentry did. But they did so due to the demands of the workplace, not because they were up all night at parties. And many of them retained the traditional dinner hour of noon or one on Sundays, when they were home from work. Many people still do today.

All these changes occurred first in London and took years to affect even the upper classes in the country. The further away from London one went, the greater difference there was in meal times, with rural Scotland lagging far behind, still eating dinner in the early afternoon at the end of the 1700s, when Londoners were beginning to dine at six or later. The situation paralleled that in France, where even Parisians had eaten dîner by four p.m. in the 1700s, but at five or six in the early 1800s, with souper at one or two in the morning. The rural populace, however, long persisted in eating dîner at midday and souper in early evening.

Indoor gas or oil lighting also came to many homes in the 1800s. so it was getting easier and easier to stay up in the evening. By the 1840s, dinner had been pushed back to as late as eight or nine for the wealthy, with many of them spending days shopping or working in a city, then spending hours taking the trains to their homes, that were now being built in distant suburbs. People once again grew hungry in the long interval that was now eight hours between new lunch and late dinner. And women once again led the way in mealtime inventiveness. Tea with biscuits and pastries had been popular since the 1700s as a refreshment to serve visitors. Now ladies began taking tea and snacks of light sandwiches and cakes around four or five in the afternoon, regardless of whether or not they had visitors. At first they had this snack in relative privacy, in their boudoir or private sitting room. But by the 1840s they had established afternoon tea as a regular meal in drawing rooms and parlors all over Britain.

The middle and lower classes in Britain were quick to adopt this new meal when they could. Tea came to fill the same role that had once been met by lunch, filling in long hours before a late dinner. But it never caught on in the US. In fact many of the older customs of eating persisted in the US, to the confusion of many visitors.
North Americans stayed on their farms longer too, not moving to cities and taking part in the Industrial Revolution as early as had the English. So the US retained the old mealtimes longer. In the early 1800s, upper-class Bostonians were still eating breakfast at nine a.m., dinner at two p.m., and supper at eight, earlier hours than their counterparts in London. Their two o'clock dinner was the time for entertaining guests, and showing off the silverware and fancy foods. Their supper was light and simple, for family and the most intimate friends. Luncheon as a regular daily meal only developed in the US in the 1900s.

A sample bill of fare for middle-class home meals: 1853
Source: "
Cookery As It Should Be: A New Manual of the Dining Room and Kitchen, by A Practical Housekeeper and Pupil of Mrs. Goodfellow [Philadelphia: Willis P. Hazard] 1853 (p. 310)

In the days before home freezers and rapid transit, suggested family menus were grouped by season and presented for each day. Breakfast would have been served between 8-9AM. Dinner would have been the main meal of the day, served sometime between noon and three. Tea would have been a light meal (at that time this meal was often called supper) before retiring.
Bill of Fare - Winter:

Breakfast - Corn bread, cold bread, stew, boiled eggs.
Dinner - Soup, cold joint, calves' head, vegetables.
Dessert - Puddings, &c.
Tea. Cold bread, milk toast, stewed fruit.
Breakfast - Hot cakes, cold bread, sausages, fried potatoes.
Dinner - Soup, roast turkey, cranberry sauce, boiled ham, vegetables.
Dessert - Pie &c.
Tea. Corn bread, cold bread, stewed oysters.
Breakfast - Hot bread, cold bread, chops, omelet.
 Dinner - Boiled mutton, stewed liver, vegetables.
 Dessert - Pudding, &c.
Tea. Hot light bread, cold bread, fish, stewed fruit.
 Breakfast - Hot cakes, cold bread, sausages, fried potatoes.
 Dinner - Soup, poultry, cutlets, vegetables.
Dessert - Custards and stewed fruit.
Tea. Corn bread, cold bread, frizzled beef, stewed fruits, or soused calves' feet.
 Breakfast - Hot bread, cold bread, chops, omelet.
Dinner - Soup, fish, roast mutton and currant jelly, vegetables.
 Dessert - Pudding, &c.
Tea. Hot light bread, cold bread, stewed fruit.
Breakfast - Hot bread, a nice hash, fried potatoes.
 Dinner - Soup, roast veal, steaks, oyster pie, vegetables.
Dessert - Custards.
Tea. Corn bread, cold bread, stewed oysters.
 Breakfast - Cold bread, croquets, omelet.
Dinner - Roast pig, apple sauce, steaks, vegetables.
 Dessert - Pie, jelly.
Tea. Cold bread, stewed fruit, light cake

pepper pot, pea, clam (broth and with cream), oyster, beef, veal or mutton broth (with vegetables)
corn bread, potato bread, muffins (wheat, fruit), rusk, sally lunn
roasts (beef, mutton, pork), ham, turkey, venison, goose, duck, cod, halibut, shad, mackerel

meat & vegetables pies, stew, hash, veal cutlets, rare bit, beef alamode

VEGETABLES (Note: some of these would have been difficult to obtain in the early parts of the century, but by the middle 1800's, they would have been fairly common):

succotash, boiled onions (with cream sauce), spinach (with hard boiled egg slices on top), potatoes (boiled, fricasseed), corn pudding, peas (with butter), boiled cauliflower, stewed carrots.

fruit pies, cheesecake, puddings (these were the steamed British type, as in plum pudding), custards & creams (lemon, orange), spice cakes, sugar cookies, ice cream. NO CHOCOLATE.

hot chocolate, coffee, tea, fruit wines and cordials, ale, shrub, Madeira, rum.


  1. No chocolate? *recoils*

    Otherwise it seems all very appetising, except for the lack of vegetarian options. (And Catherine of Aragon had brought in salads.)

    1. I believe that the lower the class, the more vegetarian the meals, as you generally ate what you raised yourself or could afford to purchase

    2. I'm sorry but vegetarian in the 19th century?... You would think many people were vegetarians back then but they weren't. Those people were desperate for food as it is. You have to have meat in your diet for your body to work right. Nobody had time or the money to be picky eaters back then.

  2. Very interesting - I love your blog! I also enjoyed reading the saloon and fashion posts. I stumbled across some of the same 19th century subject matter info when writing my first book, Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America's First Cooking School. Yes, the Mrs. Goodfellow is the same as the one referenced in the source for the Bill of Fare data from Cookery As It Should Be: A New Manual of the Dining Room and Kitchen.

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  10. I wish you would explain what some of this is. Cold bread? Boiled mutton? Is that unborn lamb? Frizzled beef, soused calves feet. Sounds awful!