For families and friends gathering for Thanksgiving dinner this year, chances are that many of them will gather at some point in rooms called the “dining room.”
For most middle-class Americans, maintaining a formal dining room for ritualized forms of entertainment popular decades ago is no longer especially popular.
Yet, most homes still have a room separate from the kitchen for meals with larger gatherings or when the entire immediate family assembles. A 2016 survey, for example, suggested that 78 percent of American homes have a dining room.
Unlike with bedrooms and kitchens, however, interior designers and builders have debated for thirty years whether or not dining rooms are really necessary.
Some contend they are “wasted” space. Others say that the dining room is “making a comeback” as people stubbornly continue to embrace the importance of family and friends sharing meals together in a setting slightly more structured than the act of grabbing toast and coffee in the kitchen before work.
Perhaps more so than any other day of the year, Thanksgiving day is the day when the dining room is least “wasted” and most useful. It does indeed provide that extra space in which a larger number of guests can be comfortably accommodated for what historians call “domestic sociability.” That is, since the rituals of Thanksgiving day are generally performed within a domestic setting, a dining room can prove to be very useful indeed.
The Dining Room Is a Recent Addition
In our modern age in which many families eat out at restaurants several nights per week, and public activities at entertainment venues are extremely common, the importance of domestic sociability is often overlooked. Yet, as Thanksgiving demonstrates, the act of gathering and socializing in a private home remains important for many families. Moreover, in times of economic downturns, domestic entertainment and social gathering becomes more important because it is relatively more affordable.
In a certain sense, those who think of the dining room as unnecessary are right. The dining room is a very late addition to homes. Even among the wealthy, dining rooms were rare until the seventeenth century, and even then, the room was not often seen outside of northwestern Europe. The wealthy certainly had large rooms for feasting, but these were often used for a wide variety of gatherings, and the public nature of the space makes them unlike private dining rooms. By the late Middle Ages, many meals were eaten in taverns and inns, but these areas, of course, were not private dining rooms either. It is only after 1700 that we begin to read of ordinary people finding ways to entertain friends and neighbors within their homes in these new spaces that would come to be known as dining rooms.
The Economics of Dining Rooms
To abolish the dining room would thus be a return to the “tradition” or a pre-industrial age when homes were smaller and living spaces tended to consist of one or two large multipurpose rooms devoted to everything from sleeping to food preparation to cottage industries. That is, like so many “luxuries,” the dining room appears as a result of the rising standards of living in Western Europe that resulted from centuries of capital accumulation in the Middle Ages and early movements toward industrialization in Britain, France, northern Italy, and the Low Countries. Even before the industrial revolution that began in the late eighteenth century, European wealth had been building as a result of the growth of manufacturing that spread as part of the “putting-out” system. That is, even before the advent of large factories, many households produced manufactured goods from raw materials within their homes. This raised the standard of living of both urban merchants and the rural peasants who participated in the system.
As a result, living space gradually grew larger for ordinary people. While the trend did not extend to the lower levels of the economic ladder until the eighteenth century, the new prosperity was nonetheless moving outward from the elites to the middle classes by the mid seventeenth century. As Jan de Vries notes in The Industrious Revolution:
In a broad middle range, the reorganization of space within homes unfolded in the century after 1650. The new forms of domestic comfort, which may first have been assembled in mid-seventeenth-century Dutch urban homes, was quickly introduced in England and France. …functional spaces became better defined, as drawing rooms and dining rooms appeared in middle-class homes and distinct bed chambers came to be identified.1
Also important from the perspective of dining areas was how these new spaces “came to be filled with more, and more specialized, furniture.”2 Increasingly, the long plank tables and benches more common in larger more public spaces were replaced by furniture considered to be more fitting for smaller private spaces. These tables were more ornate, comfortable, and generally what we could consider to be more bourgeois.
By the eighteenth century, the trend toward dining rooms had spread even to what were then the more rural and austere British colonies of North America. Two or three decades earlier, however,
Lying at the core of virtually any house in seventeenth-century Virginia was a room known as the hall—a multipurpose living space in which the planter and his household worked, slept, socialized, cooked, and dined. This hall was the only domestic space many Virginians knew. … At mealtime, members of the well-to-do household sat together on backless bench or form, drinking from a shared vessel. … In many respects, his house was indistinguishable from a tavern or even a courthouse. The dining room, in the sense of a space set apart specifically for meals, did not exist.3
By the 1750s, the meal was no longer thrown into a single pot, and the family did not share a small handful of common vessels. Rather, thanks to rising productivity throughout both the colonies and western Europe, plates for eating and cups for drinking proliferated. Even wine glasses and punch bowls began to appear. The quality of these vessels and the level of specialization, of course, depended on the level of wealth enjoyed by individual families.
Nor surprisingly, then—in both America and Europe—dining rooms also became places for ceremonial displays of one’s wealth and comfort in ways that had been unheard of a century earlier. The mere presence of a dining room was becoming less and less rare. As historian John Fanning Watson described things looking back from the year 1820, even the middling classes were dining in specialized rooms:
The scale was much reduced, the splendor diminished, the lines simplified, the materials cheapened. Yet one idea endured. That was the notion that virtually anyone could hold court in their own house by carefully observing prescribed conventions and correctly using a few pieces of standardized equipment. The goods could be purchased at popular prices and the manners learned from play, print, and publications.4
How Dining Rooms Provided a Larger Social World for Women
The social importance of dining rooms should be apparent. Even from the early days of the bourgeois, middle class household, the ability to entertain at home meant a greater ability for women to socialize.
This is not to say that it was unheard of for women to socialize outside the home. As Katherine French shows in her research on late medieval bourgeois households, rising incomes and worker productivity provided more options to women in terms of consumption. This indeed meant more opportunities to socialize with friends in public, including in taverns. This form of socializing among women was regarded with suspicion, however, and respectable women were often hesitant to be found spending much time in inns and taverns, as even the “better” ones were sometimes associated with gambling, prostitution, and disorder. Moreover, as is so often the case with the spread and democratization of goods and services in the marketplace, public drinking houses were associated with “overturned hierarchies” and social flexibility in general.5 These were places where married women—lacking spaces of their own in the cramped quarters of their houses—could gather on their own terms.
[Read More: “How Wage Work Liberated Women (and Men)” by Ryan McMaken]
While rising incomes did provide greater access to women—and men, too, of course—to social venues outside the home, the new concept of the private dining room provided additional outlets, and ones that were unlikely to bring any threat to one’s respectability. After all, the domestic space had long been associated more closely with women than men, as men could more freely move within commercial and public spheres outside the domestic one.
As homes become more spacious, and “social spaces” like dining rooms became more common, women were more able to bring the outside world to themselves, and avoid the socially taxing challenges associated with dining outside the home.
These new social spaces made it possible for women to visit each other in their homes, reducing the relative social isolation endured by many women who lacked the economic means or chutzpah needed to drink with friends in taverns. As an alternative, Barbara Caddick notes:
Contemporaries used domestic space in socially meaningful ways and during the eighteenth century the domestic interior became an arena for the distillation of ‘polite’ social entertainment. … Home became a focal point of polite culture and simultaneously it became a pleasant place to spend time. … The development of a feminine culture of house visiting, which started in the late seventeenth century, led to the advent of domestic sociability.
Community social events were no longer simply carried on either in public drinking spaces or in parish meeting areas. Social events now took place in private homes which by the eighteenth century had finally become spacious and well-furnished enough to support such activities. As custodians of the domestic sphere, it was mostly women who managed these private social events. Caddick continues:
Women were responsible for mediating domestic sociability for the family; they had the knowledge and the power to create an environment within which that was possible. For example, when John Marsh, a gentleman musician and lawyer relocated his family to Chichester in 1787, his wife immediately set about ordering suitable furnishings for their drawing room so that they could announce the family’s arrival into local society by ‘seeing company’. It was essential for them successfully to announce their arrival by partaking in the polite culture of domestic sociability.
While other rooms of the house had their social roles, such as the parlor and the drawing room —rooms since replaced by the modern “living room”—the dining room has been at the core of domestic sociability and the ability of families to comfortably entertain both guests and each other. Today, many of the status-related aspects of dining rooms might strike many readers as tiresome. Selecting the “right” candlesticks and dinnerware for entertaining in 1750, however, is not fundamentally different from socializing with friends at the “right” vegan restaurants or at fashionable musical venues in the year 2022. What is different is that so much focus was put on visiting friends and entertaining them in in a domestic setting providing privacy from the larger world.
The fact that dining rooms and their furnishings are no longer essential tools for maintaining social status for women—and a lack of male enthusiasm over dining rooms—has perhaps caused the perceived usefulness of the room to go into steep decline. For at least three centuries, however, a well-used dining room was aspirational for countless households throughout the Western world. Using the room to strengthen social bonds was seen as relatively economical and as reinforcing western ideals of family domesticity and bourgeois polite society.
These traditions have not been altogether lost, of course, and their value is still often recognized in the more popular domestic rituals surrounding various holidays—especially Thanksgiving. The means of celebrating this domestic abundance is a legacy made possible by the expansion of markets, merchants, and the manufacturing economy that spread in the late Middle Ages and early modern period. Thanks to this, the West was able to break free of the one- and two-room huts of the agrarian past and bring comforts to all social classes—comforts that were once unheard of for even the wealthiest nobles centuries ago.