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. As colonists sat down to dinner in colonial New England, they had functional, but primitive, surroundings.
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.
If you looked around an early colonial home, the large supply of napkins would probably surprise you. Given the meager belongings of a typical colonist, it might seem they put on quite a show in accumulating an exorbitant supply of napkins. Not so. They had plenty of napkins because they ate much of their food with their hands. Napkins were vital.
When not eating with their hands, colonists dined with spoons and knives. Indeed, many recipes produced stewed and soggy meat – called spoon meat – ladled up and eaten by spoon. The New England boiled dinner still occasionally appears on a restaurant menu.
The colonists barely even heard of forks. Massachusetts Gov. 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 generally accepted wooden spoons as tableware along with knives of varying quality.
One essential element at every table during dinner in colonial New England was a salt cellar or “standing salt.” A container that held salt, it indicated where you stood in the pecking order of the house based on where you ate relative to the salt.
The salt cellar could be quite large and decorative or plain and simple. The colonists placed the standing salt near one end of the table where the heads of the household sat. Important guests sat “above the salt,” meaning near the table’s head. Children and less-revered guests sat at the other end of the table, “below the salt.”
Into the Trenchers
The colonists consumed most of their food from a trencher – a wooden dish 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 during dinner in colonial New England. Diners generally shared a trencher with at least one neighbor. An early Connecticut church deacon received the cold shoulder from his neighbors when he carved enough trenchers so that each of his children could have one. It was deemed excessive and showy.
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 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. Many people owned silver cups, though they were a luxury and not every-day ware. Southerners generally had more silver than New Englanders.
Though the wealthier New Englanders had pewter in New England, they drank from wooden vessels. The normal beverage containers included tankards constructed like small barrels, hollowed-out wooden cups and leather cups fashioned to hold liquids during dinner in colonial New England.
For other uses, many homes had porringers, small bowls, to hold soups and stews. They often had handles so they could be easily drunk from. As for how people drank their beverages, they often had a single large tankard, a small bowl really, which they passed around the table at a meal and shared, refilling as necessary.
Have a Seat
Seating at the earliest colonial dinners was a luxury – and not a very luxurious one at that. People squeezed in together on benches placed alongside the board. When the benches filled, guests, and usually children, had to stand during dinner in colonial New England.
Colonists did enjoy one advantage to having so few implements: It made cleanup rather quick.
This story about dinner in colonial New England was updated in 2020.