Good Table Manners in New France

Eating in New France gave rise to specific rules. Veritable table art developed in the colony as soon as economic conditions permitted. This was marked by the establishment of spaces dedicated to meals, the use of certain pieces of furniture and utensils as well, as the nature and order of dishes.

The society that developed in New France was far from the mother country bur remained attached to it through the habits people had acquired and the relationships that continued. As a result of this ongoing exchange, fashions and manners practiced at the court of Versailles were reproduced in the colony. Through these chronicles, we invite you to discover the art of good table manners in New France.

Good Table Manners in New France

Illustration: «Un souper chez un grand seigneur canadien au 18th century», tirée de Henri Julien, Album, Montréal, Librairie Beauchemin limitée, 1916, p. 156. Source: Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, collection numérique

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First episode
From a Single Room to the Kitchen

From a Single Room to the KitchenGood table manners are not limited to the arrangement of dishes or rules of good behavior. The material aspects, the site and the furniture are also important. When eating, specific arrangements are required, with a table, utensils and chairs. This is all part of the art of entertaining.

In the early days of the colony, in the Canadian house, all domestic functions took place in the same area: rest, storage, work, meals, and leisure activities. The fireplace was the only source of heat and light. As a result, the colonists would gather around the hearth to eat.

Gradually, living conditions in the colony improved. Houses grew bigger and more spacious. Each room was dedicated to a specific function. The bedroom served for individuals, the kitchen took on a place all its own and the number of fireplaces doubled, with one in the common room and the other in the kitchen. Often, an imaginary separation was sufficient. The installation of a stove, far from the fireplace, resulted in the development of a dining room. This room created a completely new dynamic. Furniture was installed, people sat down to eat, flatware and dinnerware appeared. These changes in eating habits took place in New France at the same time as similar changes in France.

Furniture was a part of this evolution in good table manners to the same extent as flatware and utensils. To learn more about kitchen furniture and its importance in the social life of New France, we invite you to come back on June 2, 2009.

  • AUDET, Bernard. Se nourrir au quotidien en Nouvelle-France. Éditions GID, Sainte-Foy, 2001. 367 pages.
  • ROMAGNOLI, Daniela, «Les bonnes manières à table», dans Jean-Louis Flandrin et Massimo Montanari, dir., Histoire de l'alimentation, Paris, Fayard, 1996. 915 pages.

Second episode
Kitchen Furniture in New France

Kitchen Furniture in New FranceFurniture plays a most important role in the art of entertaining. The table stood in the heart of kitchens in New France and the entire space was arranged around it. The arrangement and use of the table have evolved over time.

Generally, the table did not stand in a fixed position. When it was used for meals, it was placed in the most comfortable position. The rest of the time, it was stored along a wall, making room for other activities. Frequently a folding table was used for practical reasons and certain tables were equipped with drawers in which to store utensils.

In New France, chairs were not necessarily placed around the table. Frequently, people ate in turns. It was only as of the 18th century that an improvement could be noted.

The table played a very important social role. Guests sat around it to eat, as well as to chat and develop social bonds. Through the small favors they did for one another, neighbors at the table interacted and reaffirmed their ties. Good manners included various rituals that took place around the table concerning, for example, the positioning of the guests and the arrangement of the dishes. The host was responsible for making the meal pleasant, creating a good atmosphere and providing a table that was well stocked with dishes that had been prepared with care.

There was a way in which to sit at the table and a complete set of rules concerning the use of the various objects. When individual place settings evolved and the number of utensils multiplied, this meant that people had to master these new techniques. That was when the table fulfilled its function as a place for practicing good manners.

Utensils, tablecloths and napkins were used to decorate the table. To learn more about individual place settings, we invite you to come back on June 16, 2009.

  • AUDET, Bernard. Se nourrir au quotidien en Nouvelle-France. Éditions GID, Sainte-Foy, 2001. 367 pages.
  • ROMAGNOLI, Daniela, « Les bonnes manières à table », dans Jean-Louis Flandrin et Massimo Montanari, dir., Histoire de l'alimentation, Paris, Fayard, 1996. 915 pages.

Third episode
The Individual Place Setting

The Individual Place Setting The table was a part of the settler’s daily life in New France. The tablecloth was only used for important occasions. Table utensils were available, which indicates that good manners were known in New France.

Initially, common dishes were used and they were passed about in turn. With the development of good manners, the individual plate came into being. Following this, it was no longer acceptable to share one’s plate or one’s knife. Politeness required the use of utensils.

The individual plate appeared early in the St. Lawrence Valley. It was generally made of pewter and assessed by weight. Although frequently only the strict minimum was available, namely two or three plates, settlers sometimes had at least a half-dozen. Generally, platters were not widespread among the population. Meals were served from the kettle and platters were reserved for the elite.

Generally, a spoon and a fork were placed beside the plate. The tradition of the personal knife which was very popular in New France, lasted a long time. Once seated at the table, each person would take his own knife out of his pocket and put it away again once the meal was over. This was the tradition in New France until the 18th century. The generalized absence of personal knives after that could be explained by the fact that knives were considered dangerous objects at that time.

The Individual Place SettingThe fork was a recent appearance in 17th-century France. Etiquette treatises published in the 17th century insisted on the use of the fork and its importance in the rules of good manners. In New France, the fork first appeared on tables at the end of the 17th century. Gradually, it assumed an important role in the settlers’ habits. It was generally made of iron, with four tines. It was placed with the tines against the table, whereas the opposite was true in England

Table utensils in New France were almost all made of pewter since they were easy to melt down. Only the families of the elite used cutlery made of porcelain and plates made of silver. Valuable objects could enter into the family heritage during marriages, when each guest brought a present. Gifts would include useful objects and this was how silver goblets would be found among the pewter tableware owned by rural families.

The Individual Place SettingGood manners gradually became important in New France as the colony grew. The comings and goings of the colonists, the elites and the religious communities brought the latest news from France along with the traditions of politeness that developed in the court of Louis XIV. Etiquette treatises flourished in France during the 17th and 18th centuries. Nevertheless, they do not appear to have crossed the Atlantic. In the colony, good manners seem to have been transmitted through imitation.

To learn more about the art of entertaining in New France, we invite you to return on June 30, 2009.

  • AUDET, Bernard. Se nourrir au quotidien en Nouvelle-France. Éditions GID, Sainte-Foy, 2001. 367 pages.
  • ROMAGNOLI, Daniela, «Les bonnes manières à table», dans Jean-Louis Flandrin et Massimo Montanari, dir., Histoire de l'alimentation, Paris, Fayard, 1996. 915 pages.

Fourth episode
The Art of Serving Guests

The Art of Serving GuestsDuring the 17th and 18th centuries, several etiquette guides were published in France, using court traditions for their models. Anyone from a good family who wanted to affirm their belonging to the elite could use these documents to learn good manners. Table etiquette was one of the topics covered.

These guides do not appear to have crossed the Atlantic, but it is highly likely that certain ways of doing things spread to New France through imitation. These traditions were most likely to be found in the governor’s house, the intendent’s house, religious communities and among the families of the elite. All of the settlers, however, could have been exposed to them during stays at the inn, in the hospital, at an educational institution or through domestic servants who worked for the elite. New table manners, nevertheless, were not adopted overnight, either in France or in its colony. Old habits die hard!

Taken from the Nouveau traité de la civilité published by Antoine de Courtin in 1700, here are a few examples of advice given concerning conduct during meals:

  • The master or mistress of the house is responsible for providing and organizing the meal. They are also responsible for deciding who to invite.
  • When someone is asked to serve a neighbor at the table, it is important to serve that person the best share. To do this, you need to be familiar with the qualities of the pieces of meat and know how to cut them.
  • Guests should never express disgust with respect to certain dishes but rather just leave them discretely on their plate.
  • When sitting at the table, you should hold your body straight and never place your elbows on the tablecloth. You should avoid leaning over the plate and letting half of the portion brought to your mouth fall back on it. You should avoid blowing on each mouthful of soup.
  • Inasmuch as possible, you should avoid touching your plate with your hand such as in order to tip it in order to finish up your soup or to lift it to your mouth. Plates should not be scraped.
  • Utensils should be used when eating greasy food or dishes with gravy, so as to avoid getting your fingers dirty. However, you should not keep you knife in hand the entire time you eat.

The Art of Serving GuestsAccording to certain observers at the end of the French régime, the meals in the colony were definitely a match for those in the mother land. In 1752, for example, Engineer Louis Franquet attended a dinner served by the Governor of Trois-Rivières. Enchanted, he stated, “There was a table with 25 place settings served, well not like in Paris [...], but with the abundance and delicacy of dishes from the best provinces in France.” Another sign of a certain degree of refinement in the St. Lawrence Valley: several settlers had tablecloths and napkins.

In the colony, what could be referred to as “French meals”, was the dominant trend. This type of meal included three courses, designed in three consecutive sequences, during which several different dishes would be presented. The first course included soups, hors-d’œuvre, and entrées. The second included roasts, vegetables and entremets and, finally, the third course was the dessert course. All of the dishes would be presented at the same time. The sequences lasted 30 minutes on average. The advantage of this tradition was that the guests made up their own menus, depending on their appetites and tastes.

On the other hand, one of the disadvantages was that the dishes tended to grow cold. To remedy this problem, the “Russian” style of meals became popular later, as of the early 19th century. This was a more rational and utilitarian approach than the earlier tradition. The dishes were placed on the table in the order indicated in the menu, brought in one by one, and everyone would eat the same thing. The important items would be brought in by the maître D before being cut up and then served to the guests. Domestic servants would be responsible for cutting, either in the dining room or the kitchen.

And this brings our series of chronicles on good table manners in New France to an end.

  • GADOURY, Lorraine. La famille dans son intimité: échanges épistolaires au sein de l'élite canadienne du XVIIIth century. Montréal, Hurtubise HMH, 1998. 185 pages.
  • HARRISON, Jane E. Adieu pour cette année: la correspondance au Canada, 1640-1830. Montréal, XYZ, 1997. 181 pages.


Personal knife
Several types of personal knives were used in New France in the 17th and 18th centuries: the Siamese knife, which was similar to those from Siam, the logger’s knives, used for the fur trade and included in the voyageurs’ equipment, or even bone-handled knives.
The fork looks like a small pitch fork. It first appeared in the Byzantine Empire and arrived in northern Italy in the 11th century. This trend was launched in Italy when a Byzantine princess married an Italian prince. In the 17th century, the fork spread throughout Europe, but it was little used. In France, Louis XIV refused to have it used in his court. He ate with his fingers, wiping them clean with a damp cloth.
Etiquette treatises
In the 17th and 18th centuries, treatises on good manners flourished. With respect to good table manners, there was the work written by De Courtin and his Nouveau Traité de civilité, which, in 1728, encouraged the use of the fork: “Once again, it is very indecent to touch anything that is greasy, any sauce, any syrup with your fingers, particularly since that results in two or three other indecencies. One is frequently wiping your hands with your napkin and dirtying it like a kitchen rag so that it is viewed with disgust by those who see you raise it to your lips to wipe your mouth. The other is wiping your fingers on your bread, which is also very dirty. And the third is licking your fingers, which is the ultimate in uncleanness” (translation).
The stove is a furnace made of cast iron or faience used for heating. It served to heat a room and enabled people to move away from the fireplace. In New France, the use of stoves also resulted in the division of the domestic space.
The Canadian house
The first houses in the colony were very modest in size. Generally made of wood, they had only one room. Then, in the 18th century, other rooms were added, generally made of stone. When they had the means, people occasionally destroyed the primitive wooden structure and re-built in stone. The common room, the site of family activities, the kitchen and the private bedroom highlighted this evolution.