What could I possibly write about mealtimes that we all do not already know? We all know which meals take place and at which times, or do we? For most of us, our meals and their times have been a fixed feature of our day for all our lives. And yet, modern mealtimes are part of a long shift in the times at which people ate their meals, and the names of those meals, over the course of many centuries.
Did you know that early in the reign of Henry VIII, dinner in England was taken at about 11 o’clock in the morning and it was the first meal of only two in the day? Did you know that the meal we know as luncheon was not commonly taken until well into the reign of Victoria, but there were some ladies who "did lunch" during the decade of the Regency?
Breakfast had been introduced into the beginning of the English day in the first decades of the eighteenth century. It was exactly what its name would suggest, the meal by which the fasting of the nighttime was broken. By the decade of the Regency, breakfast was well-established as a light morning meal. It usually consisted of bread, often toasted, or rolls with jam, preserves or marmalade, eggs and perhaps ham or bacon. Tea, coffee and chocolate were common beverages served with this meal, but ale was also part of many a gentlemen’s breakfast.
The time at which this first meal of the Regency day began varied between approximately 8:00am and 10:00am. Country people and those in the city who worked for a living would take their breakfast closer to 8:00am, possibly even earlier. People of fashion and leisure, those of the beau monde, would typically take their first meal of the day closer to 10:00am. But that does not mean these people were lying abed until that time. We know from contemporary diaries, letters and journals that most fashionable people rose between 8:00am and 9:00am. But they did not immediately consume their breakfast. Most people rose, dressed and spent an hour or two reading, dealing with their correspondence, meeting with servants or walking, before the family sat down to breakfast. We know that the Duke of Wellington, for most of his life, rose at approximately 7:00am and spent at least three hours working on his correspondence and military dispatches before he sat down to breakfast. In a letter to her sister, Cassandra, Jane Austen, while visiting her brother in London, wrote of rising near 8:00am, dressing and going out to the draper’s to do some shopping, before returning home at about 9:30am to have breakfast with her brother. Some ladies might have a cup of chocolate or tea, and a slice or two of toast upon rising, to sustain them through their pre-breakfast activities. Men were more likely to take a glass of ale, or nothing at all prior to joining the family for breakfast.
Those of us who are regular readers of Regency romance novels are aware that "morning" calls could be made well into the afternoon. And those calls did take place in the Regency morning, because they defined that segment of the day differently that we do today. In modern times, "morning" is officially defined as the half of the day between Midnight and Noon. But in the Regency, "morning" was defined as the period from dawn until the time of the main meal of the day, which was dinner. Thus, the Regency morning did extend into the afternoon, even into what we would now call the evening. The Regency morning ended when one sat down to dinner. But dinner had been getting later and later in England since the Middle Ages. By the Regency it had slipped nearly eight hours since the reign of Henry VIII.
Eight hours is a long time for any human to go without a meal. Why should they, you might ask, as there was always lunch. But that is the rub, since up to the years of the Regency, lunch, or luncheon, was not a regular meal in England. The words "lunch" and "luncheon" entered the English language at the end of the sixteenth century, but with the meaning of a lump of bread or cheese. The words "nunch" and "nuncheon" are much older words which entered the language in the fourteenth century, when they had the meaning of a light snack between meals, usually accompanied by a drink. But none of these words had yet been chosen as the name for a meal which was taken between breakfast and dinner.
As you might imagine, many people, particularly ladies, found it difficult to go from breakfast to dinner without sustenance. In the decade prior to the Regency, ladies of the leisure classes began to take a light meal around 1 o’clock, usually alone or with immediate family. Typically, this was a repast of cold dishes, usually bread, meat, cheese and fruit. Wine, tea or coffee were the most common beverages served at the meal, but seldom were beer or ale on the table. By the Regency, many ladies of the beau monde in the cities were sharing this meal as a social occasion, men seldom partook. It was during these years that this midday meal was christened lunch or luncheon, luncheon being the more upper-class and socially-acceptable term. Nuncheon was a term for the mid-day meal of the lower classes.
Few men of the Regency, even those of the leisure and aristocratic classes, spent the bulk of their day at home. Therefore, they were typically not present when the ladies of their household sat down to lunch. These same men got just as hungry as their ladies, and they often had a midday meal, but they did not refer to it as luncheon. Luncheon was a meal for ladies, not for men. These gentlemen might have a bird and a bottle at a nearby tavern, a sandwich or pasty at their favorite coffee-house or cold collation at their club. Perhaps because ladies had instituted the custom of luncheon, men resisted it until well into the reign of Queen Victoria. And so, during the decade of the Regency, ladies introduced and legitimized this mid-day meal, and by mid-century, their men yielded. By the late nineteenth century, lunch was an important meal for businessmen throughout Britain.
Dinner in the Regency remained, as it had been in medieval times, the most important meal of the day. It was also the heaviest and most complex meal of the day, consisting of multiple courses of several different dishes, many of them including various meats and fish. Wine was the most common beverage served with dinner, often different wines with different courses. Dinner was also the most formal and longest meal of the day. In the homes of the bean monde, no one would ever consider not dressing for dinner, even if only family were in attendance at the meal. And even if there were only three courses at dinner, it could take as long as two to three hours to conclude.
By the 1780s, dinner was served between 3:00pm and 5:00pm. By the decade of the Regency, dinner was served between 6:00pm and 8:00pm, in the towns. In the country, dinner was typically served anytime between 4:30pm and 6:00pm. The fashionable hour in Hyde Park was at 5:00pm, to provide an opportunity for a refreshing airing before dressing for the formal evening meal, after which might come an evening out, at a ball, rout, musicale, or the theatre. Dinner was often a social event itself, as it was the meal at which the hosts and hostesses of the haute ton most commonly entertained their friends and acquaintances and displayed their wealth and good taste. You might find it interesting to know that the practice of gentlemen escorting ladies into the dining room by order of precedence is a Victorian system. In the Regency, as had been the habit of many decades before it, ladies and gentlemen made their way to the dining room as a kind of polite mob, where they took any seat they pleased, since a planned seating arrangement was also a Victorian concept. The only exception would be when a particularly high ranking and/or elderly guest would be escorted to the dining room by the host or hostess and seated in a place of honor.
Late in the evening, often near the end of a social event, such as a ball or musicale, a fourth meal would be served to the guests. This meal, supper, was usually served around midnight, and was typically made up of cold meats and cheeses, bread and rolls, perhaps some small savory pastry creations, with a large selection of sweetmeats. Wine, especially champagne, ale, tea and coffee would usually accompany a fashionable supper. If a family had gone out to the theatre for the evening, there would usually be a cold collation awaiting them upon their return home. Most gentlemen’s clubs would put out a cold collation each evening around midnight for the refreshment of their members. In a fashionable home where guests were present, for the evening, or at a house party, a cold supper was usually served, again near midnight.
During my research I realized that meals and their times, similar to those of Regency England, survived in the heartland of America well into the middle of the last century. My maternal grandmother grew up on a farm in Iowa, and when she married in the 1920s, she and her husband took over the management of it from her parents. It was a working farm, on which they raised some dairy cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens for family use. They also had a very large vegetable garden, also for growing food to feed the family. The cash crops were corn and soy beans. From the time when she took over the farm in the mid 1920s, until my grandfather passed away in the late 1950s, they had at least three farmhands who lived on the farm in addition to the family. They all typically rose about 4:30am, at which time they would have a cup of strong coffee and toast, made of homemade bread slathered with butter. Then they would head out for the first chores of the day, milking the cows, slopping the hogs and feeding the chickens. Everyone would return to the house about 6:30am, when they would have breakfast. This meal typically consisted of ham or bacon, hash browns, eggs, more homemade bread and butter and hot coffee. Then everyone was off to work in the fields until noontime, when they all returned to the house for dinner. This was the largest meal of the day, and included a number of hot dishes, usually a roast chicken, a pork or beef dish, a potato dish, and at least two vegetable dishes, plus the inevitable bread and butter. Water was the most usual beverage on the table, until dessert. The sweet finish might be apple pie, chocolate cake, or bread pudding, served with hot coffee. Again, everyone went back out into the fields until dusk when they returned for their final meal of the day, supper. This was typically made up of the leftovers from dinner. There was then some time to sit around the radio, play some checkers or have a hand or two of cards before everyone retired for the evening.
The meal names and patterns on my grandmother’s farm in mid-20th century Iowa are very similar to those of Regency England, with the exception that they began and ended rather earlier and were certainly less elegant. Yet now, more than fifty years since my grandmother left the farm, such a meal pattern is quite uncommon in America, or in Britain. As they always have, mealtimes and names continue to change and probably will forever. But we can be grateful to all those hungry Regency ladies for that light meal in the middle of the day, lunch. It will be interesting to see when and how mealtimes will continue to change into the future
For further reading on the customs of the English at mealtimes:
Broomfield, Andrea, Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 2007.
Hampson, John, The English at Table. London: Collins, 1946.
Mennell, Stephen, All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985.
Palmer, Arnold, Movable Feasts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Visser, Margaret, Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners. New York: Penguin, 1992.