If you’re reading this within easy walking distance of your dining-room table, take a moment to go and look at it. I’ll wait.
Hello again! I now have a question: if everyone currently living in your household decided to eat at the table right now, would they be able to do so without having to clear away some unopened mail, advertising flyers, one glove that is missing its mate, a random piece of computer equipment, a Christmas ornament that got missed when the decorations were packed away, a worksheet dated “Complete and return no later than Feb. 5”, a houseplant that still needs a permanent home, or anything else not necessary to the act of eating a meal?
Do you even have a dining-room table? For that matter, do you actually have a dining-room? I ask because the dining-room table is apparently going the way of the passenger pigeon, and the room that once housed it is likewise disappearing, joining other once-common spaces such as the pantry, the front parlour, and the root cellar.
The plummeting popularity of both is attributable to changing fashions in the way we live now. Dining-rooms have, since Roman times, been an indicator of wealth: only those with sufficient means to build or buy a large residence had space for a room dedicated solely to eating. Working-class folk had smaller houses, so meals were taken in either the kitchen or in a common eating/living room, where the main life of the house played out.
Dining-rooms were incorporated into the homes of the middle- and upper-classes, to show that the owners had well and truly arrived, and this fashion carried on into the early 20th century, when labour-saving appliances began taking the place of servants and became status symbols of their own. Kitchens became bigger, to house all the new gadgets, and eventually grew large enough to house a second, more informal dining-table, sometimes in what was specifically called a breakfast nook.
Gradually these kitchen tables became the most convenient places to eat informal meals like breakfast and lunch. Dining-rooms became the preserve of the evening meal, and soon not even that in many cases, as family members ate at different times according to busy schedules. Houses grew smaller as people turned instead to more affordable, but less spacious, options, where the idea of devoting an entire room just to eating was a waste of precious space.
Single-family homes also underwent a change, from a place of regimented rooms clearly separated from each other by walls and doors to open-plan spaces where rooms went seamlessly from one to another. The dining-room became a corner of the living-room, which in its turn became the great room or living area: a single space where a formal dining-room table with matching chairs and sideboard looked as out of place as a four-poster bed in a studio apartment.
It’s a shame, in a way, as the dining-rooms of the houses I grew up in were lovely, stately places. They weren’t Downton Abbey-esque by any stretch of the imagination, but they were faintly museum-like, with a huge glass-fronted cabinet containing china that was only brought out on Very Special Occasions, and a crystal chandelier that accompanied us whenever we moved. It was always a room of stillness and calm, as was the adjoining living-room. We lived our everyday lives in the family room, where the comfortable chairs and the TV and the stereo were, but I used to love curling up with a book in the peace and quiet of the living-room, secure in the knowledge that I would not be disturbed.
Thus it is that dining-room tables, once ubiquitous, are quietly disappearing from the landscape, replaced by kitchen tables and breakfast bars. If you still have one, and fancy a treat, clear it off, break out some place mats, and see if your meal tastes just a little bit better.