Mealtimes of the Regency Day

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.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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21 Responses to Mealtimes of the Regency Day

  1. Pingback: Daily Life in the Regency Era: Meal Schedules « Jane Austen's World

  2. Pingback: Regency Chocolate: Pale, Thick and Frothy | The Regency Redingote

  3. Buzzy says:

    This is pretty much what I thought I knew about Regency era meals, in particular that you didn’t mention afternoon tea, something that was only invented later. Except, in the middle of Pride and Prejudice there is this sentence: “By tea-time, however, the dose [of Mr. Collins’ conversation] had been enough, and Mr. Bennet was glad to take his guest into the drawing-room again, and, when tea was over, glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies.” The implication being that there was a regular tea time at which the men joined the ladies. I realize this is country gentry rather than London society, but every text on eating habits in that era I’ve read has been clear that afternoon refreshments were NEVER called tea-time in that era. Which is confusing, as Austen presumably didn’t make that up.

    In my research I’ve found that there were two cases where a meal called luncheon would be eaten, often by mixed parties, outside of London: 1) When traveling with the well-heeled, arrangements would be made for a luncheon stop at a reputable inn. 2) At country estates, picnic luncheons would be arranged as amusements. The latter is another one I’ve seen multiple authors get wrong, as a picnic did not involve carrying blankets and baskets and serving yourself, but was set up on tables under pavilions by the servants.

    Any thoughts on these issues?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Maria Edgeworth mentioned her characters taking “luncheon” while traveling in one of her novels, which was published in the late eighteenth century, so the word was certainly in use by then. The tricky bit is the meaning which was attached to it, which varied widely during the first half of the nineteenth century, including during the Regency. Early in the century the best general description seems to have been that it was a small, informal meal, just a large snack, in some cases. It was not until well into the reign of Victoria, when men finally decided that luncheon, or just “lunch” was a useful meal for business reasons, that it received its final stamp of approval as the meal between breakfast and dinner and became an institution.

      The use of the term for al fresco meals in the country does seem to be for an entertainment, which included food. And you are quite right, in most cases, the “luncheon” would have been set up and laid out by servants, if the family had them. For a family with few or no servants, they might very well have carried baskets of food and blankets or table-cloths for their own meal outdoors and could have called it a picnic luncheon. And, of course, a man bent on seduction might have invited a woman to a “private” picnic “luncheon” where he provided all the necessities and the service.

      My research agrees with yours on the use of the word “tea-time” not being typical during the Regency, though there were those who did take tea in the afternoon, often with sandwiches or sweet bisquits (cookies), but it was not labelled “tea-time.” In fact “tea” as a meal did not become institutionalized until long after the Regency, and then mostly in lower class homes where it replaced dinner. However, Jane Austen was a creative writer and woman of a most independent mind. She may have simply used the term “tea-time” because it was clear, precise and she did not want to interrupt the flow of her story. Also, that scene took place after dinner, when most households did serve tea, so the concept of “tea-time” at that time of day would have made sense to her readers, who might themselves have used that same shorthand term from time to time.

      Regards,

      Kat

    • Emily says:

      I think people can take “tea time” too literally. It can be an official meal or just stopping for a cup of tea or stopping for tea and a snack. It doesn’t have to be so official and regimented. And I think people forget that England is further north than most American northern cities. London has 8 hours of daylight during the winter and almost 17 hours of daylight during the summer. New York has over 9 hours of daylight during the winter and barely reaches 15 hours of daylight during the summer. Add in being overcast all winter and managing an average of about 1 hour per day that isn’t overcast during the winter. Vs summer where you’ll see an average of a little less than 7 hours per day that aren’t overcast.

      Sunlight effects peoples eating patterns. Coming from the UK and living in Canada, I find there isn’t nearly as much difference here with how much sun we get in the winter vs how much sun we get in the summer. My eating patterns barely change with the seasons. The latitude is further south than London. Back home, meal times change with the seasons and I find the same is true for most people. I think the inconsistencies people see with meal times in the UK are partly because of seasonal weather (sunlight) patterns. England isn’t nearly so overcast during the summer. But winter is quite literally miserable because it can feel prison like with the lack of sunlight sometimes going on for months on end.

      I doubt I would have realized what a difference it makes without having spent time living in Canada and then moving back to the UK. I think people need to consider seasonal changes and more flexible expectations for meal times today and in Regency England.

  4. Buzzy says:

    “Also, that scene took place after dinner, when most households did serve tea,” though the Bingleys served coffee!

    Thanks for your insights. It’s a rare pleasure to have such an authority who is willing to answer my questions. I do hope I’m not abusing the privilege.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Austen seems to have coffee served in her scenes most often when men are of the party. With Darcy and Bingley both present, it would make sense for the snobby Miss Bingley to have coffee served, trying to make points with Mr. Darcy. While poor Mr. Bennett, who was inundated with women, was stuck with tea in the evenings. 😉

      Thank you for the compliment, but I am by no stretch of the imagination “an authority” on the Regency. I am just an inveterate student of social history and I find I am better able to make the information my own by writing it up. And it seems selfish not to share once I have gone to that effort. In fact I have a mug which says, “… information has no value until it is shared.” So, my hope is to give this information value by posting it here.

      Questions and comments are always welcome here. I may not always have the answers, but will try to find them, if I can. And everyone is always entitled to their opinion, it is what makes the world interesting.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Actually Mrs. Bennet has coffee served after dinner as well. When Darcy and Bingley return to Netherfield, she invites the Longs and another family and the two gentlemen and Lizzy is serving coffee at the table. She actually plots Darcy a cup!

        *I literally just finished reading P&P for the umpteenth time, so it’s fresh on my mind. I was actually quite struck with how many times coffee was served as I had always considered it more an American custom than British.*

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          As noted above, coffee was typically served if gentlemen were present, as in the scene you mentioned.

          Both coffee and tea were popular in the American colonies until the Revolution. At that time, because the heavy tax on tea was protested at the Boston Tea Party, it became patriotic to drink coffee rather than tea. After that, tea never really regained its position in the United States.

          Regards,

          Kat

  5. Regan says:

    I discovered your article while researching the name for the evening meal and was happy to learn it was called “dinner” as that’s how I’d been referring to it. Thanks so much for doing all the hard work!!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      It is not really hard work for me, since I have always enjoyed doing research and writing helps me to clarify the salient points in my mind. I am glad to know this article was helpful to you.

      Regards,

      Kat

  6. Pingback: Taking a Page from Jane Austen’s Book: Regency Era Dining | Inspired healthy organized

  7. dwwilkin says:

    Reblogged this on The Things That Catch My Eye and commented:
    A lot of good research and information that needs to be woven into our regency tales

  8. This is very interesting indeed – particularly the piece about entering the dining room in order of precedence. I’ve seen so many Regency authors make an entire scene out of this – and now I find out it’s a Victorian concept! It’s good to have clarification of the hours for evening meals – so many novels simply say “country hours” or “Town hours/fashionable hours”, and I always wondered what those were! Thank you!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you found the article informative. Like you, I wondered about the differences between “town” and “country” hours for mealtimes when I first began reading Regencies. I thought others might, too.

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

      Regards,

      Kat

  9. This is such a detailed and useful post! I used this and another mini documentary I found to help create a Regency Lady’s Itinerary, which I sometimes used to plan my own day! I found that meals and mealtimes were particularly hard to find out about so thank you for this, it was very helpful!

  10. Pingback: A cena con Mr. Darcy: la tavola Regency #1 - Scrivendo

  11. Cari Hislop says:

    I love your website! I’m editing a book and had to come check dining time (I’m sure my subconscious makes up rubbish when I least expect it just because it can – it pays to double check).
    Thanks for offering such a great compendium! 🙂

  12. Charlene says:

    Here I am six years late with a minor correction!

    Breakfast was absolutely eaten in the time of Henry VIII; we know this from both statute – workers were allowed half an hour off for breakfast under the law – and the works of numerous writers, up to and including Thomas More. In fact, we have evidence that breakfast of some type existed in the time of William the Conqueror, although the word itself wasn’t in common use until the late 15th century and the food usually consumed wasn’t much more than ale, buttered bread, and (for wealthier households) a little cold meat. By the early 1530s royal breakfasts could be enormous and elaborate.

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