Time is Dinner?
Sherrie McMillan looks at the evolution of mealtimes.
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
Party by Gerrit van Honthorst depicts members of the
upper class combining entertainment with the last meal
of the day.
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
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
These late dinners became more and more common in the 1700s,
due to new developments in culture and technology.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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
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 dīner
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 dīner 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.
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
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
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
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