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History Magazine cover
The 1650s
Victoria L. King examines a decade of civil unrest and enlightenment in Europe.

Birth of the Boardwalk: A Sandy History
Russell Roberts looks at the illustrious beginning of the "walk of boards".

David A. Norris looks at the plastic of the Victorian Age.

The Battle of Cannae
Nicky Nielsen tells the story of the ancient battle between Hannibal Barcas and his sworn enemy, Rome..

Barter and Trade in Colonial America
Joanne Liu looks at the early history of Colonial America where currency as we know it was scarce.

Chroniclers & Scribes — Medieval Historical Writers
William Stroock chronicles some of the great medieval documents that have survived.

The Pedigree of Platinum
Steve Voynick relates the fascinating history of the "other" precious metal.

Pyramids and the Occult — Fact or Fiction?
Pamela D. Toller chronicles the search for the magical meaningn of the pyramids.

The Early Days of Radio
From the book With Amusement For All: A History Of American Popular Culture Since 1930, author LeRoy Ashby looks at the early programs that made radio so popular.

"The Storm": Killer Hurricane Devastates Galveston, Texas
Joanna Bostwick Backman tells the story of a killer hurricane.

Fire Below! The Devastating Reality of Coal Bunker Fires
Patrick McSherry chronicles the dirty and dangerous history of coal bunker fires and the men that fought them.

The Timeless Appeal of Clocks
Phill Jones chronicles the history of timekeeping and its impact on history.

Lizzie Borden and the Fall River Axe Murders
Daniel M. Hoenig describes the enduring interest in this case of murder most foul.

What Time is Dinner?

Sherrie McMillan looks at the evolution of mealtimes.

Supper Party by Gerrit van Honthorst depicts members of the upper class combining entertainment with the last meal of the day.

TODAY WE DON'T always agree on the names and times of our meals. Some of us have dinner at eight, while others have supper at five. It wasn't always that way.

The names of meals and their general times were once quite standard. Everyone in medieval England knew that you ate breakfast first thing in the morning, dinner in the middle of the day, and supper not long before you went to bed, around sundown. The modern confusion arose from changing social customs and classes, political and economic developments, and even from technological innovations.

Despite our stereotypes of big English breakfasts of sausages, kippers (sardines), toast, tomatoes, etc., big breakfasts weren't really common until the Victorian age. Breakfast before the 1800s was usually just toast or some variation of gruel or porridge, except when a lavish spread was offered to impress guests. The main meal of the day was dinner.

In the Middle Ages, great nobles ate the most formal dinner, around noon or one p.m. Their dinner was more than a meal; it was an ostentatious display, a statement of wealth and power, with dozens of servants attending in a ritualized performance. Cooking for this grand, daily show began hours in advance, and the preparations for presentation began at 10 or 11 a.m. The meal might take hours, and be eaten in the most formal and elaborately decorated chambers. Lesser nobles, knights and manor holders ate a far less formal dinner, but at the same time of day.

Middle-class tradesmen and merchants, however, had to eat a little later. Their day was bounded by work, not by feudal rituals. They couldn't leave their shops to see to their own dinners until clients and customers had gone off to their own. So merchants and traders would eat at one or two in the afternoon, and then hurry back to meet the afternoon customers. The middle-class dinner might be served by one or two servants and consisted of bread, soups, pies, and perhaps meats and fish. The dishes varied with the season, and from country to country.

Peasants broke off after six or seven hours of work in the morning to have dinner around noon. This was their main meal too, consisting of bread or porridge, peas or beans, perhaps with some cabbage, turnip or onions thrown in. Sometimes they had meat, fish, cheese or whey (a byproduct of cheese-making). Their meal was much like that of the middle class except there was usually less to eat, and little variety. They ate far more at dinner than at breakfast or supper.

Today many people find it strange that the biggest meal of the day once centered around noon, but it made great sense at the time. Artificial lighting such as oil lamps and candles were expensive, and provided weak illumination at best. So people went to sleep at sundown, because it's difficult to work and eat in the dark. The last meal of the day was a rushed affair, a quick snack before the lights (the sun) went out. The only exceptions were those who had to work at night, and the extremely wealthy and powerful people at royal courts. The wealthiest courts, like those of France and Burgundy might stay up after sunset, their grandly decorated halls illuminated by thousands of candles or torches. But they were unusual; most medieval people never witnessed such spectacles.

Traders and merchants, who sometimes had to stay in the shop to handle the last daylight stragglers amongst their customers, might close shop at dusk and spend the last hour or two of their day in candlelight or firelight. But they made it to bed as quickly as they could, to rise early the next day and open up their shops again. Only the extremely wealthy had candles to burn and could waste daylight hours sleeping in late. So supper, the third and last meal of the day, was usually eaten before the sun went down, or very shortly afterward.

The English knew the last meal of the day as supper, and it was a light repast, usually made of cold leftovers from dinner. People generally went to sleep soon after eating it, and did not like to go to bed on a full stomach any more than modern people do.

Most nobles and manor lords ate supper between four and six p.m. They might have entertainment afterward, unlike the lower classes, but even nobles usually went to bed before too many hours had passed. Peasants might have just the last of the day's bread for supper, eaten at sundown. Then they went to sleep, to be up and working with the sunrise.

And that was the standard schedule for centuries. There were some exceptions, of course. People at the wealthiest courts might stay up after dark, as already mentioned. They had plenty of money for things like candles and rush lights, and were used to the world revolving around their schedules, rather than the other way around. A king or a lord who was passionate enough about his pursuits to put off eating for hours while hunting would make his retainers and family wait too.

Some groups, like Parliament in England might meet in the morning and work until late afternoon, without a break. They would go to their homes for dinner at four or five or even six p.m. Their families generally had to wait for them. Supper would then be pushed ahead until eight or ten o'clock, or not eaten at all. Supper was considered an optional meal by the English, who often stuffed themselves so full at dinner that they could not eat again until the next day. Who today would think of skipping the last meal of the day? We are far more likely to skip the first or the second.

So these established meals were sometimes shifted around or delayed due to work, or simply due to the fact that the sun set earlier in autumn, thus supper was earlier. These factors could lead to a lengthy wait between meals.

From the Middle Ages to the age of Shakespeare, there are scattered references to occasional extra meals, called luncheon and nuntion or nuncheon. Nuntion was eaten between dinner and supper, and peasants were sometimes guaranteed nuntions of ale and bread on those days they worked harvesting the fields in the lengthy days of late summer and autumn, when sunset and supper came many hours after noon and dinner. Luncheon seems to have been eaten between breakfast and dinner, when dinner was delayed. Luncheon was taken mainly by ladies and was not a large meal. It was more of a snack on those days when they had to wait for a late dinner due to the political or sporting affairs of their husbands.

These late dinners became more and more common in the 1700s, due to new developments in culture and technology.

At first, only those able to afford candles could indulge in late final meals. The poorer classes ate while there was still daylight, and went to bed not long after dusk.

Dinner at Five

Capitalism, colonialism, and then the industrial revolution were changing the world's economy. The tumultuous wars and revolutions of the 1600s had been part of a shift in power. Nobles were losing their status as independent powers as kings and central governments took more power for themselves. Fewer and fewer nobles were playing really strong roles in government. As new professional classes of politicians, diplomats and citizen armies began to occupy many of the roles nobles used to fill, nobles had more time to play. And with all the economic changes that were occurring, many people had a lot more money to spend.

These developments and others, such as the enclosures of the 1700s, the end in England at least of the devastating wars of the 1600s, the lessening of plagues, and also the fact that nobles had been brought under control by the kings of England and France led to more settled conditions, as nobles were no longer conducting their personal and local wars.

The nobility and gentry became a class of leisure and began to spend more time in the cities, where they had parties and entertainment night after night. They had, or at least most of them had, no more work to do.

The middle class grew at the same time, due to growth in mercantilism, trade, crafts and manufacturing. This growth also took place in cities. Rising wages led to more purchasing of goods, and the cycle continued.

People had more money, and in the cities at least, more goods were available, including candles and lamps and drugs. People began staying up later with the better lighting, and many of them didn't have to get up so early in the morning anymore. There was also more to do at night. The 1700s were a time of entertainment as well as enlightenment. Theaters and operas were suddenly available on a wider scale in cities like London and Paris, with most performances at night. In Shakespeare's time they had usually been in the day, in sunlight. Now they were in enclosed halls, illuminated by hundreds or thousands of candles and lamps. These were not just affairs for the upper class, either; middle and lower class people went in large numbers.

Artificial lighting allowed for later mealtimes. In Fritz Syberg's Supper, a working-class family sits down to a meal of porridge with the clock in the background reading 8:25.

Morning After Noon

With these late hours for entertainment and parties, and with more artificial lighting, many people in the cities began going to bed later and rising later in the morning. Mealtimes were pushed back as a result. In London, by the 1730s and 40s, the upper class nobles and gentry were dining at three or four in the afternoon, and by 1770 their dinner hour in London was four or five.

In the 1790s the upper class was rising from bed around ten a.m. or noon, and then eating breakfast at an hour when their grandparents had eaten dinner. They then went for "morning walks" in the afternoon and greeted each other with "Good morning" until they ate their dinner at perhaps five or six p.m. Then it was "afternoon" until evening came with supper, sometime between nine p.m. and two a.m.! The rich, famous and fashionable did not go to bed until dawn. With their wealth and social standing, they were able to change the day to suit themselves. The hours they kept differentiated them from the middle and lower classes as surely as did their clothes, servants and mansions.

Some upper-class individuals did get up earlier, children for instance and sometimes their mothers. By 1800 the dinner hour had been moved to six or seven. For early risers this meant a very long wait until dinner. Even those who arose at ten a.m. or noon had a wait of anywhere from six to nine hours. Ladies, tired of the wait, had established luncheon as a regular meal, not an occasional one, by about 1810. It was a light meal, of dainty sandwiches and cakes, held at noon or one or even later, but always between breakfast and dinner. And it was definitely a ladies' meal; when the Prince of Wales established a habit of lunching with ladies, he was ridiculed for his effeminate ways, as well as his large appetite. Real men didn't do lunch, at least not until the Victorian era.

It was not exactly what we would consider an effeminate meal, however. There are records of society ladies taking luncheon at inns in this period, drinking cider, ale and beer with their lunch, something we don't normally think of "ladies" as doing.

Since the middle classes were still eating dinner in midday for the most part, they had no room for luncheon in their day. But that was changing.

The Sack Lunch

The middle- and lower-class day was still bounded by work, as it always had been with most people still eating on the medieval schedule. In the late 1700s and the 1800s, that began to change with the development of factories and then trains and streetcars. People began to work further from home, and the midday meal had to become something light, just whatever they could carry to work. The main meal, still usually called dinner, was pushed to the evening hours after work, when they could get home for a full meal.

So, many people in the middle and lower class began to eat dinner in the evening as the nobles and gentry did. But they did so due to the demands of the workplace, not because they were up all night at parties. And many of them retained the traditional dinner hour of noon or one on Sundays, when they were home from work. Many people still do today.

All these changes occurred first in London and took years to affect even the upper classes in the country. The further away from London one went, the greater difference there was in meal times, with rural Scotland lagging far behind, still eating dinner in the early afternoon at the end of the 1700s, when Londoners were beginning to dine at six or later. The situation paralleled that in France, where even Parisians had eaten d�ner by four p.m. in the 1700s, but at five or six in the early 1800s, with souper at one or two in the morning. The rural populace, however, long persisted in eating d�ner at midday and souper in early evening.

This caused much confusion and grumbling over differences in meal times when the British or French traveled between city and country. The main dinner meal could be eaten anywhere from five to eight hours later in the city than the country, by the start of the Victorian era. Indeed, with all the changes in dining times and customs, you might think the Victorians would have taken a breather, and stopped changing things, letting them stabilize again. They didn't.

More Meals

Indoor gas or oil lighting came to many homes in the 1800s. It was getting easier and easier to stay up in the evening. By the 1840s dinner had been pushed back to as late as eight or nine for the wealthy, with many of them spending days shopping or working in a city, then spending hours taking the trains to their homes, that were now being built in distant suburbs. People once again grew hungry in the long interval that was now eight hours between new lunch and late dinner. And women once again led the way in mealtime inventiveness. Tea with biscuits and pastries had been popular since the 1700s as a refreshment to serve visitors. Now ladies began taking tea and snacks of light sandwiches and cakes around four or five in the afternoon, regardless of whether or not they had visitors. At first they had this snack in relative privacy, in their boudoir or private sitting room. But by the 1840s they had established afternoon tea as a regular meal in drawing rooms and parlors all over Britain.

The middle and lower classes in Britain were quick to adopt this new meal when they could. Tea came to fill the same role that had once been met by lunch, filling in long hours before a late dinner. But it never caught on in the US. In fact many of the older customs of eating persisted in the US, to the confusion of many.

Not in North America

Just as the local situations of time and place explain the development of new customs in Britain, they also explain the relative lack of them in the US. Many English immigrants to what is now the US arrived before 1776. At that time, most English people still ate dinner between noon and two, and supper at sunset. Luncheon was not yet established as an everyday, regular meal, and afternoon tea would not be invented for nearly 70 years. Immigrants brought with them the customs of the time. Canada, with relatively more British immigration in the 1800s and 1900s, tends to have more similarities to current British customs, at least among English-speaking Canadians.

North Americans stayed on their farms longer too, not moving to cities and taking part in the Industrial Revolution as early as had the English. So the US retained the old mealtimes longer. In the early 1800s, upper-class Bostonians were still eating breakfast at nine a.m., dinner at two p.m., and supper at eight, earlier hours than their counterparts in London. Their two o'clock dinner was the time for entertaining guests, and showing off the silverware and fancy foods. Their supper was light and simple, for family and the most intimate friends.

Luncheon as a regular daily meal only developed in the US in the 1900s. In the 1945 edition of Etiquette, Emily Post still referred to luncheon as "generally given by and for women, but it is not unusual, especially in summer places or in town on Saturday or Sunday, to include an equal number of men." She also referred to supper as "the most intimate meal there is...none but family or nearest friends are ever included." Only hash or cold meat were to be served at supper; anything hot or complicated was served at dinner. In her first edition of Etiquette, in 1922, Post had seen no need to explain that. But by the 1945 edition, she had to explain that luncheon was an informal midday meal and supper an informal evening meal, while dinner was always formal, but could occur at midday or evening.

Later editions, such as the 1960 edition edited by Elizabeth Post, standardized the times and dropped all the old traditions of formality. Lunch was formal or informal, but always at midday, and everyone ate it whether male or female. Dinner was formal or informal, but always in the evening. Supper was an optional meal, thrown in during late night balls. Timing had become more important than ritual; ritual became an optional and personal choice. Of course not everyone relies upon the Posts. Most people rely upon a hodgepodge of ancestral traditions and newer customs arising from modern life.

In our current century, we eat dinner any time from noon to midnight, and most people never have a supper. Like so many old rituals, once followed with iron-clad discipline, our meal times are now as fluid and changeable as the rest of our lives. Customs that persisted for centuries have disappeared in a few decades. Perhaps it is just the rest of us catching up to the upper classes, who became flexible long ago.

This article originally appeared in our October/November 2001 issue.