Thursday, November 15, 2018
By Sarah Duggan, DAGS coordinator and research curator

Good gracious me, it’s the night before Thanksgiving in 1869, and you’re completely unprepared. Family and friends have travelled several miles to be here, but the house is a mess, the pie hasn’t been made, and there's no football to distract your guests while you cobble things together at the last minute. How will you throw a feast with enough solemnity and festivity to honor this new national holiday that has only existed for six years?

No need to worry! You’ve got this. Fellows of THNOC's Decorative Arts of the Gulf South project (formerly Classical Institute of the South) will show you how with the help of these useful and beautiful 19th-century furnishings. By the time you’re finished, everyone will be full, happy, and well rested—just plan on making enough for leftovers.

All of the items shown here were cataloged in private collections across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Let their research give you a glimpse of how past Gulf South residents—and their servants, because, to be honest, households with these items would probably have employed domestic staff—might have greeted their holiday guests. For more on the decorative arts of the region, visit the exhibition Pieces of History: Ten Years of Decorative Arts Fieldwork.

1. What to do with all of this clutter?

Company’s coming! Make sure to hide all your daily clutter. Stash those unfinished needlework projects in your sewing table, and lock up personal papers in a desk. You don’t want nosy guests peeking at your bank book!


2. Prepare to be inconvenienced.

Plan out every food preparation task and how long it will take. Vegetables can’t peel themselves, and most pre-made convenience foods are a long way off. Labor-saving kitchen supplies like canned food and mechanical egg beaters won’t be available until the 1880s. Pies are a great candidate for advance preparation, and a marble biscuit table provides the perfect smooth workspace for shaping pie crusts and other pastries. As an added bonus, you can fold the lid down to hide the marble surface away when not in use.


3. "Leaf" some room for all of your guests.

Now is the time to deploy those table extensions (or leaves) that live in a “leaf cradle” storage box most of the year.  Any good dining table will have built-in supports to help it expand for larger groups. This stylish example cleverly hides the center leg inside the octagonal pedestal when closed.


4.  No room at the kids’ table.

Make sure there are enough dining chairs to go around your extended table, and don’t forget the littlest guests! If there’s no room at the kiddie table, skootch them up alongside the adults. This handy high chair converts to a “carriage” for the post food-coma promenade.


5. Brandish that China for some “oohs” and “ahhs.” 

Get out the best dinner set and your finest serving dishes. Every food from fruit to dessert deserves a stunning presentation. Ordering the latest pattern of delicate yet sturdy hand-painted porcelain from France shows your good taste—and your ability to keep up with the Joneses.


6. That utensil is for asparagus ONLY!

You can never have too many utensils. “Unique” and “specific” are the keywords for 19th-century silver. An elegant host will have a broad range of the latest utensils specially calibrated for different dishes. You wouldn’t dare be so rude as to make your guests multitask with a basic spoon! A fish knife will perfectly lift up a filet without crumbling or dropping it. The tines of a macaroni server can easily dig into any pasta dish. If you’re looking for a healthier side dish, these asparagus tongs will help you get some green stalks onto your plate without them rolling away.


7. Keep the drinks—and conversation—flowing.

Cut-glass decanters are all the rage, and perfectly complement your elegant porcelain and silver settings. They also make wonderful gifts. Whether you’re serving claret, Madeira, or after-dinner bourbon, let these faceted containers make spirits look even more inviting.


8. Save room for gambling.

After your post-meal walk, unfold the top of the card table for some games. These tables can be stored against a wall when folded and not in use. The table base also provides handy hidden storage space for game equipment.


9. Set your fireplace on “high” and rotate leftovers to heat evenly.

If someone gets peckish during game time, you can always reheat some leftovers. A plate warmer cabinet set in front of a hearth or fireplace can heat up multiple plates at once (like a giant, paw-foot microwave). Just be careful when you handle the warmed dishes!


10. Sleep off that feast on a hidden bed.

It’s getting late and everyone is ready to sleep off that big meal. There might be more guests than spare bedrooms, but luckily you have some beds cleverly hidden away. Trundle beds easily store under a tall-post bed, and are perfect for small children. Older relatives might want to sleep on something more sophisticated, and a multitasking parlor bed perfectly fits the bill. By day, it looks like a generic bookcase. But when night falls, pull down the false front to unfold a full bed, complete with springs and a footboard! This Murphy bed ancestor will look elegant in any parlor.

So there you have it—all the tips, tools, and tricks to hosting the perfect mid-19th-century Thanksgiving dinner. And as you prepare for Thanksgiving 2018, maybe you can be thankful that many of these "hacks" are no longer necessary.

Cover imageDining room, Robert H. Short house (detail); photograph by Robert S. Brantley; THNOC, gift of Jan White Brantley and Robert S. Brantley, 2015.0415.83 ©Robert S. Brantley