Arts and Leisure

Into the Trenchers: Seven Strange Facts About Dinner in Colonial New England

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe

The colonists who first began settling in New England in the 1620s brought what furnishing they could from Europe, but they were largely on their own when it came to setting up housekeeping. And a look around their dining room would bear little resemblance to what we see today – or even what colonists had just a few decades later. The surroundings were primitive and functional, but little more, as colonists sat down to dinner in colonial New England.

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe

Napkins Aplenty. If you looked around an early colonial home, you might be surprised by the large supply of napkins. Given the meager belongings of a typical colonist it might seem that they had put on quite a show in accumulating an exorbitant supply of napkins. Not so. Napkins were plentiful because people ate much of their food with their hands. Napkins were vital.

Spoons. When not eating with their hands, colonists dined with spoons and knives. Indeed, many recipes produced stewed and soggy meat – called spoon meat – that had to be ladled up and eaten by spoon. The New England boiled dinner can still occasionally be found on a restaurant menu. Forks were virtually unheard of. Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop had the first recorded fork in America, which he obtained in 1633. Doubtless he was the envy of many. Most families had at least one silver spoon, but wooden spoons were the generally accepted table ware along with knives of varying quality.

Below the Salt. One essential element at every table was a salt cellar or “standing salt.” It was a container from which salt was distributed. You knew where you stood in the pecking order of the house based on where you ate relative to the salt cellar, which could be quite large and decorative or plain and simple. The standing salt was placed near one end of the table where the heads of the household sat. Important guests were seated “above the salt,” meaning near the table’s head. Children and less-revered guests were sent to the other end of the table, “below the salt.”

Into the Trenchers. Much food was consumed from a trencher – a wooden dish that had been carved out like a trench. A larger plate – pewter or wood – would hold the main meal and individual portions could be distributed into trenchers. Trenchers were generally oblong or square, and people ate directly from them. But you wanted to be wary of who you sat next to, as in most homes diners shared a trencher with at least one neighbor. An early Connecticut church deacon was given the cold shoulder by his neighbors when he carved enough trenchers so that each of his children could have one. It was deemed excessive and showy.

The Board. Dining tables were often covered with cloths similar to table cloths today. But they were called board cloths, because tables were little more than a board laid across two sets of legs. Creating smooth lumber was a difficult task for early colonists so boards were often rough. In some cases, boards were created from crates received from Europe. In at least one case, a colonial family constructed a thick board with trenchers carved with into the top.

Tankards, cups and porringers. Glass was a rare commodity among early colonists. A bottle might be considered such a valuable item that it was mentioned in someone’s will. Silver cups were owned by many, though they were a luxury and not every-day ware. Southerners generally had more silver than New Englanders. Though pewter was available to the wealthier homes in New England, most drinking was done from wooden vessels. Tankards constructed like small barrels hollowed out wooden cups and leather cups fashioned to hold liquids were the norm for drinking. For other uses, many homes had porringers, small bowls, to hold soups and stews. Many had handles so they could be easily drunk from. As for how people drank their beverages, it was not uncommon to have a single large tankard, a small bowl really, that would be passed around the table at a meal and shared – refilled as necessary.

Have a seat. Seating at the earliest colonial dinners was a luxury – and not a very luxurious one at that. Benches were placed alongside the board and people squeezed in together. When the benches were full, guests, and usually children, were left to stand.

If there was one advantage colonists enjoyed it was that having so few implements to eat from made cleanup rather quick.

Thanks to Home Life in Colonial Days, Alice Morse Earle.

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Emily S Palmer

    Emily S Palmer

    March 10, 2017 at 10:34 am

    Fascinating!

  2. Patricia Houser

    Patricia Houser

    March 10, 2017 at 11:14 am

    Fun to read!

  3. Pamela Strohm

    Pamela Strohm

    March 10, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    Obviously they didn’t know about germs and sharing! How often did they wash those wooden cups and trenches? Also there was lead in those pewter cups. It’s amazing most survived.

  4. Carol Smith Charnquist

    Carol Smith Charnquist

    March 10, 2017 at 2:54 pm

    I have a house full of too much stuff!

  5. Joebouley Bouley

    Joebouley Bouley

    March 10, 2017 at 7:14 pm

    we had to come ashore to buy beer…

  6. Diane Bradbury

    Diane Bradbury

    March 12, 2017 at 12:20 am

    This article was “worth its salt”…

  7. Mary Paquette

    March 16, 2017 at 2:37 pm

    Something’s never change, we still eat “Spoon Meat”, only with a electric “Crock Pot” !

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