From Middle Class Anxiety To Factory Fueling Station
March 23, 2015 11:30 AM   Subscribe

"Parlors, “dining chambers,” and other spaces amenable to dining began appearing in architecture plans. Each nation seemed to have its own idea as to what constituted a proper dining room. The great Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti wrote that it “should be entered off the bosom of the house,” advising further that, “[a]s use demands, there should be [a dining room] for summer, one for winter, and one for middling seasons.” Some two centuries later Englishman William Sanderson would recommend that a “Dyning-Roome” be hung with pictures of kings and queens." The Austerity Kitchen presents A Short History Of The Dining Room Part 1 / Part 2.
posted by The Whelk (22 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The three houses I spent my childhood in all had dining rooms. Part II's discussion about dining rooms as status symbols for the upwardly mobile really rngs true for me. We were upwardly-mobile working class when my parents were together, and as we moved into bigger houses, the dining rooms got progressively grander while we used them less and less. The houses also had progressively bigger kitchens with more eating space, and I guess we were just kitchen-eaters at heart when given the opportunity.

We had the main meal every day in the dining room of the smallest house - was there more desire to act like middle-class folks in those early days, or was it because it was too cramped to stage a proper dinner in the smaller kitchen?

The previous owners of the small house had used the room as a bedroom for two of their four kids, but there was just my sister and I, and we didn't want separate rooms. I used the dining rooms of the bigger houses as private reading nooks, because there was never anyone in them.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:50 AM on March 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I bought a house about 12 years ago... actually it was a dirt lot that eventually had a house on it. A big part of why my ex and I bought it was that it was the only floor plan we found (out of the 50 or so that we could afford at the time) that had a big, open L-shaped space downstairs instead of a narrow little hallway, a tiny little dining room, and a tiny little living room. Also, it had the biggest kitchen and most counter space.

It's strange, because the big houses (2,500 square feet+) in the area all have open floor plans, but we poors generally have to put up with a bunch of cramped little rooms. And there's no reason for it that I can see, except you get to tell your friends that you have a living room AND a dining room, I guess.
posted by Huck500 at 12:10 PM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Underpants Monster, that's an interesting point about using the dining room less and less, the grander it gets. I actually think that's kind of the point, that you're truly upwardly mobile and secure when you have whole rooms you barely use.

I recently acquired my first dining room, and the brief thrill of sophistication I had when renting the place was almost immediately quelled by my constant need to actually USE the room for USEFUL things, none of which are dinner parties. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy that our place has room for a drill press. I just don't feel like it signals upward mobility to have the drill press next to my vintage china cabinet.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:11 PM on March 23, 2015 [7 favorites]

Metafilter: "Magnificence there was, with some rude attempt at taste, but of comfort there was little, and, being unknown, it was unmissed.”
posted by blue_beetle at 12:17 PM on March 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

In the suburbs I've lived in and visited over the years, very few dining rooms get used regularly as dining rooms. Most of the time, they're just rooms with a big table in them. And the tables collect piles of life's detritus...stacks of bills, paperwork of some sort, maybe the kids do their homework there...but, save for an occasional holiday dinner, very little actual dining goes on in the dining rooms.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:37 PM on March 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have a dining room, with dining room table, that mostly ends up used as a family homework spot or game table or project area. What I really kind-of want is a dining room table that splits in half vertically instead of/in addition to the horizontal split to add leaves; then I could push each long half up against the walls of the dining room and use them as buffet serving areas when I have stand-up parties (which I have more frequently than sit-down dinner parties). Pushing the whole table against the wall is fine, but it makes the space awkward, and two long half-tables would be much more useful!

I suppose the table would have to have extra legs than and people would kick them, but maybe they could fold under like folding table legs, or screw in only when you want to use it as a buffet. I don't know, something like that.

That's how I'd modernize my dining room, because it's nice to have a big flat table surface to spread out on for all kinds of work and projects, and it's nice to be able to eat around a table when you want to, but for parties I'd much rather have the space opened up, the chairs pulled into the living room so more people can sit and chat, and the table split in half for more convenient laying out of food.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:42 PM on March 23, 2015 [5 favorites]

You could go old-fashioned tavern and have the table fold up onto the wall.
posted by The Whelk at 12:46 PM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have a dining room, with dining room table, that mostly ends up used as a family homework spot or game table or project area. What I really kind-of want is a dining room table that splits in half vertically instead of/in addition to the horizontal split to add leaves; then I could push each long half up against the walls of the dining room and use them as buffet serving areas when I have stand-up parties (which I have more frequently than sit-down dinner parties).

I have that table! I never, ever use it as intended, but maybe that is because I got a larger apartment shortly after I bought the table..
I checked, but unfortunately, it seems to have gone out of production. It was from Blå Station - maybe you can find it on eBay?
posted by mumimor at 1:38 PM on March 23, 2015

My takeaway is that you people need to hold more formal dinner parties
posted by The Whelk at 2:09 PM on March 23, 2015 [11 favorites]

While in the past I have had a drill press on my dishwasher and I liked it, my current 1914 small cottage has a walk-through dining room with the table diagonally to one side ready to seat 8. No two of the vintage chairs are alike. It has an informal tablecloth, centerpiece (mostly a silver casserole holding the hipster salt and condiment collection, and silver water jug) and iron candlesticks with tall candles on it all the time. I or my roommate and our friends sit down to eat every meal at it, complete with cloth napkins for ecological reasons. There's no room for that in our small, poorly non-designed kitchen. Between my housemate (a caterer with a day job) and I (kosher foodie), we host sit-down meals at least 2-3 times a week. In my previous apartment, I could only entertain in the summer because the kitchen table held 4 skinny people, max.

It's also true the dining room holds the cat tree (note to self - design/build craftsman-style cat tree, why are they all so ugly?!), vintage sewing machine in its table, my wooden editor's desk and scanner-printer, the sideboard/bar with my Jewish ritual chatchkes and an immense catering fruitbowl, and four bookcases (two pine built-ins) of cookbooks and wine. Someone is often laying out craft projects such as paper fireballoons or sewing on the table, stripped to its oilcloth under-tablecloth. There's also a work center to track the current house rebuild and garden design projects paperwork and blueprints, and fall-spring, a thorny etrog/citron tree in a 3-foot pot.

So the dining room is also the office, clean crafts space, bar and orangery (I don't know a word for generic citrus-holding area. A lemonarium?). It is used at least as much as the combined foyer-living room. Someday the basement will be dry/ventilated and habitable and I suppose the crafts can go live there, but that's a long time from now.

I grew up in houses with empty, elaborately decorated dining room-living rooms. Where all the activities happened in kitchens, family rooms, offices, basements, attics, garden sheds and garage. The only part I miss is being able to close the door on noise or mess. The current arrangement is much friendlier, and we get to look at the beautiful art and antiques all the time.
posted by Dreidl at 3:20 PM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

You could go old-fashioned tavern and have the table fold up onto the wall.
posted by The Whelk at 11:46 AM on March 23
[+] [!]

I have this! My husband had a carpenter do it when we moved in to deal with a dining room that is just a little too small to have a dining table and a buffet table full-time. It is great for parties.
posted by charmedimsure at 5:13 PM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

The idea of dedicated rooms for activities is a pretty recent-aping-of-the-upper-class thing ( in which recent is meant to mean about around industrialization) . When most people lived in a single room, everything was a lot more modular. Chairs went on hooks, writing desks folded up or where brought in - one thing Austerity Kitchen reported on in the past was the lack of *stuff* in say Early Colonial America - the family spoon for example.

Growing up the only familes I knew with dedicated dining rooms where

1: Artsy bohemian branch of a fairly well off family who inherited a slightly too large townhouse and used it for family events but mostly ate in the kitchen.

2: The mixed catholic/Islamic family who had "family dinners" every Sunday and whenever I was over where the dining room was clearly also the homework/paperwork/mail center.

3: A working class Greek family in construction and I think car sales who had a really beautiful dining room I never saw them use and mostly ate in the eat-in kitchen area which was MASSIVE, with like two story tall windows.

We never had a dedicated dining room, I still don't*, cause growing up it was a table in the kitchen for meals but realistically dinner was prepared then taken to respective corners to eat in silence while working or watching TV or reading -- actually sitting down at the kitchen table was unusual.

So I mostly eat dinner with the SO in the den, watching a movie. for parties I go for buffet style anyway, trying to recreate resteeraunt service seems pointless, and I never much liked sit down dinner parties anyway.

(*the "dining table" is just the big table in that big room, it's more of a breakfast table anyway cause that's when we use it cause that's the part of the apartment that gets all the morning light. I can count the number of times we've had dinner DINNER on it on one hand.)
posted by The Whelk at 5:28 PM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

(There's also that odd open plan thing where there's a full sized dining table but it's tehcnislly 'in the kitchen' cause nothing is separating it and it basically turns into a general storage area)
posted by The Whelk at 5:31 PM on March 23, 2015

I hate hate HATE separate dining rooms. (I am a huge fan of open concept.) The house I grew up in had a formal dining room and living room, neither of which were ever used for their original purpose. (TV watching and socializing happened in the den and we had an eat-in kitchen.) Eventually the dining room became my stepdad's office, but the living room remained empty (except for the period of time my friend Megan lived with us because she got pregnant so her parents kicked her out and we took her in).

My new house has an open dining/living area. It is separate by an breakfast bar/type counter/wall thing, but the kitchen is a bit too weird for it to be eat-in. I am embracing it by painting in stripes with a funky colour (the dining room, that is.)
posted by Kitteh at 6:07 PM on March 23, 2015

Hm. Thinking about it, I've never lived in a place with a specific dining room. I've always had a dining *table* and eaten my meals at it, though. When I lived in a studio apartment and didn't even have a bed, I still had a table and chairs. It just seems like a relative necessity. How are you supposed to cut your meat when your plate is in your lap? Don't you spill everywhere? My dining table just hasn't ever been in its own designated room.

I wonder how all this "dining room" stuff intersects with people eating out. Is eating out basically the only time a lot of couples or families actually eat together, at the same table? Or at a table at all?

This is kind of a weird pet peeve, but I hate people who eat so ludicrously fast that it's difficult to share a meal with them. They either get done too early, or (even worse!) they continue eating for a more normal amount of time, but by doing so, they're hoovering in so much food that there's not really enough left for everyone else. I've never known anybody who was used to eating as a family with other people to do that, but that might just be dumb luck.

It sounds so petty, but being unable to enjoy a meal with someone is SUCH A PAIN. Because you have to eat multiple meals every single day, so it's bound to come up constantly. And what makes it even more irritating is that you can't really say anything. I mean, you can't criticize something as personal and petty as eating speed. But people need to adjust their speed to match their company! It's basic politeness! And I can/will try to eat fastER, but I'm not going to sit there shoveling food in my mouth and not making any conversation, because we're not in boot camp ffs.

Well tbh if I can't eat at a table or in a place where I can comfortably relax and enjoy my food (I love eating popcorn in bed), I'd rather not eat at all. Like how many people are fine eating in their cars? Or while WALKING even? What's the point, I'd rather be hungry than eat standing up or with the steering wheel right in my face.
posted by rue72 at 7:17 PM on March 23, 2015

Oh and also Whelk, I'm glad you posted this today, because last night I was eating some lamb chops and got to my favorite part -- digging the marrow out and eating it off my knife -- and I started thinking that I might actually have some very old silver marrow spoons buried in the back of this one particular drawer (though in the end, I didn't bother to check), and of course all that made me think of you.
posted by rue72 at 7:20 PM on March 23, 2015

Is eating out basically the only time a lot of couples or families actually eat together, at the same table? Or at a table at all?

This is actually the breakthrough pitch for the fast food chain Burger Chef on Mad Men, the idea of a fast food place as surrogate family dining room where all the problems and issues have been taken care of.
posted by The Whelk at 7:44 PM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I got a secretary desk with pigeonholes and a roll top for my bills and BEST $98 I EVER SPENT because it can sit in the living room and I can ROLL THE TOP DOWN to hide the paperwork mess. Just saying. If your paperwork has taken over your table, A+++ would pigeonhole again.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:04 PM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am for eating at the kitchen table or even a breakfast bar. I refuse to eat in front of the TV anymore because it is deeply tied up in the era where I was drunk/hungover 90% of the time, alone, and depressed. Also, food gets everywhere.
posted by Kitteh at 4:03 AM on March 24, 2015

> paperwork/mail center

But then what do you keep on your kitchen counter?
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:43 PM on March 24, 2015

posted by The Whelk at 8:22 PM on March 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

You could go old-fashioned tavern and have the table fold up onto the wall.

One of the small schools I went to had tables like that in the gym, because there apparently wasn't enough room or money or something for a separate cafeteria. By the time I got there, we just got our lunch in the kitchen and took it back to eat at our desks in the classrooms, but apparently they had used to pull them down every day at lunchtime. We only used them for special occasions.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:36 PM on March 25, 2015

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