The decline and fall of the dining room table

A Victorian family dines together, 1895
A Victorian family dines together, 1895
Photo: A. Bayley-Worthington (Getty Images)

My parents bought a dining room table sometime in the ’80s. They put it in the part of the house designated as the dining room. It was attached to the living room (or the “frunchroom,” as we say in Chicago); together those two rooms took up about two-thirds of the second level of the house. We were never allowed to use them, except to practice piano. The dog made a game of how far she could advance into the room before someone would chase her out. The table had a glass top, so we couldn’t use it for homework or projects or a place to leave random shit. We used it maybe five times a year, for the high holidays, Thanksgiving, and Passover. My mom still has that table. She still almost never uses it, although she has unbent a little; sometimes she drops her mail on it.

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This is a typical American story and you can probably tell a similar one—unless your parents are poor, downtrodden millennials, in which case, they would not be buying a dining table at all. Over at The Goods, Melinda Fakuade traces the long decline of the dining table, starting with ancient times when it was the sign of wealth and prosperity. “You got to show off all your lavish things: beautiful chairs, the linens, the plates,” Alice Benjamin, an interior decorator, told Fakuade. “There was an art of eating, and an art of living that was associated with a dining table that was huge.”

Then in the 1920s, newfangled appliances began to do all the work that servants once did. Hosts began to invite their guests into the kitchen to admire their new toasters and refrigerators and everyone discovered that the kitchen is always the best place to hang out during a party. By the 1940s, the eat-in kitchen became a standard part of new construction, and families began having their meals there instead of in the more formal dining room. Or they ate in front of the TV.

Times changed again, and if you watch HGTV, you know that modern American homes are all about the open plan and the “farmhouse kitchen.” “Basically [it’s] a big kitchen that has a big table in it and a sofa and becomes this kind of hub of family life,” design critic Alexandra Lange explained. “That’s a pattern that people have been adapting to in their homes. If you’re trying to work and you’re trying to make lunch and your kid is trying to do school, what you need is a bigger room that has places for all of those activities to happen at the same time.”

This all took up space that was once occupied by the formal dining room. New construction, especially in cities where space is limited to begin with, dispensed with it altogether. And now, in the pandemic era when everyone is home all day, what is a meal anyway? What is dinner? Why do you need a special table for it?

Fakuade’s article has a lot more detail and insight into how and where we eat and why. It’s a fascinating read, perfect for your lunch break at your desk or couch.

DISCUSSION

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Soused

We do only use it for occasions but I couldn’t imagine not having a dining room.