How to Set the Table, and Why: The Short Course

From The New York Times

Traditionally, of course, a proper table is covered with a cloth. Tablecloths originated in Rome and represented wealth and dignity during the Medieval period. Damascus in Syria produced the best cloths, called damask, like my family heirloom. Centuries ago, several tablecloths were laid one on top of another, each to be removed after a course. This practice is still followed today in some cultures, in North Africa, for example. Then in early 18th century England, very fine wood tables were meant to be shown off, so doilies, named for D’Oyley, a London draper who is said to have invented them, came into use. These in turn became place mats.

On to the plates. The plate is the flat dinner plate, which evolved from wooden trenchers, which were in turn preceded by slabs of stale bread.

The plate is then flanked by knife and tablespoon on the right and usually two forks on the left. Utensils are placed to make picking them up and using them efficient and simple. The knife should be turned so the blade edge is on the left, next to the plate, a consideration dating from when knives were razor sharp. The forks, a larger dinner fork and a smaller salad fork, are placed in order of use from the outside in. In France the forks and spoons are usually turned so the tines and bowls face down.