Newsletter Steven Ferry

The Modern Butlers’ Journal, May 2021, The Wisdom of Butlers Past

Steven FerryThe Wisdom of Butlers Past

by Steven Ferry


PART 48: Recommended Table Laying

What follows is a sort of checklist of things to do to prepare for a formal dinner of 14. Such as: place 8 salt cellars (no mention of pepper pots) and 6 water bottles on the table. On larger tables, placing a silver “epergne,” a centerpiece with a central bowl and between 2 and 8 smaller bowls and candleholders extending out from there. In these bowls were placed extra food, so guests could help themselves rather than having to pass the items to one another. They were also used to place side dishes, fruit, sweetmeats (i.e. sweets and chocolates), chips, dips, and other finger foods. Today, centerpieces are usually floral arrangements and other decorative arrangements, with candlesticks and finger-food being presented separately.

Butlers would have two sets of lip glasses and finger bowls on a tray for those who wanted to wash their mouths or fingers. Today, each guest would have a finger bowl for their own use and use it to wash their lips if needed.

Butlers would lay the table early in the day because on days of formal dinners, there would be more bells ringing both inside (family and resident guests ringing bells to summon a staff member for some need) as well as the “street door.” A century later, they would lay the table the night before and cover each setting with napkins, which is where the expression “covers” comes from: The number of place settings in a restaurant.



Extracted from the 1823 book, The Footman’s Directory and Butler’s Remembrancer, re-published in hardback by Pryor Publications. You may obtain your discounted copy (with free s&h) by emailing the publisher: Mr. Pryor (alan AT



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