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Food and the Bourgeoisie: High Society and the Art of Living 1850-1930
By Annie Chouinard, under the supervision of Joanne Burgess, PhD, UQÀM
In the 19th century numerous families made fortunes in business. For them the art of receiving guests was a way to display their newly acquired wealth, and their lives were governed by a variety of socially and economically based rituals.
The art of receiving at home
Between 1850 and 1930 the bourgeois lifestyle was to a great extent tied to appearances. The domestic world of the upper class was dominated by the rituals surrounding meals and table manners. Transformations in the design of rooms in homes accentuated the gap between the wealthy and less well-to-do families. For centuries people had lived in one room, considered a common space. In French-Canadian culture the word "kitchen" appeared in the 18th century. But it was not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that architects started separating the kitchen from the rest of the house, usually putting it at the back. This trend had already taken hold in the homes of the bourgeoisie, however, where a clear demarcation existed between where people ate and where food was prepared. Here, the concept of intimacy was well entrenched by the middle of the 19th century. In fact, the kitchen and dining room were conceived in order to separate servants from family members.
In bourgeois homes the rooms, especially the dining room, were intended to satisfy the need for representation while also preserving the intimacy of the family unit. The upper class ate their meals as a family, and the servants - well, they cooked and served the meal. The number of meals eaten varied, depending on numerous social, economic and cultural factors. In Europe, the timing of and number of meals changed between the 16th and 19th centuries. The upper class began eating their last meal of the day later and later, to clearly separate them from the working class. In addition, in the 18th century, the upper class normally ate two meals a day. In England, another meal, breakfast, was gradually introduced; it was a more substantial morning meal than that eaten by francophones. In Canada, the type and timing of meals was modelled on British customs, especially among upper-class anglophones.
The best way to display social status was to open one's home to guests, either for tea or a more elaborate gathering, at which the silver, crystal, porcelain and sumptuous table linens were used. The dishes and cutlery for these occasions were sometimes imported from England. The only Canadian company producing fine china at this time was the St. Johns Stone Chinaware Company, located in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.
The ritual of the tea service is often associated with British culture. Its great popularity stems from the fact that the food could be easily prepared because there would be only a few guests to eat it. There were however variations on the basic tea service. An intimate tea (6 to 20 persons) was served in the living room around 11 p.m., accompanied by English-style cakes. It was normally served by the woman of the house and her daughters, helped by the young men. Men drank their tea standing up, while women had it seated. An official tea (20 to 40 persons) sometimes resembled a reception. More formal than an intimate tea, the occasion required evening dress. Guests arrived around 9:30 and left at midnight. Tea was served at about 11:00, accompanied by sandwiches, fruit and cakes. The meal at these events was served by servants. If more than 40 guests attended, the event was a musical evening or a dance.
Balls were the highlight of the social season, and an invitation to one meant you had achieved a certain social status. The ball given in honour of HRH the Prince of Wales on August 27,1860, was the social event of the year in Montreal. The eldest son of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), the prince had been invited by Canadian dignitaries to inaugurate the Victoria Bridge. The committee organizing the ball decided to build the Crystal Palace for the occasion. Located on Ste. Catherine Street between Drummond and Peel, the structure could hold 10,000 guests, though only about 6,000 attended the ball! A private room had been built for the prince and his retinue, but he preferred to dine with the other guests. On the menu that night were a variety of gastronomic dishes, including jambon orné à la royale, poulets de printemps à la romaine, quartiers d'agneau, charlotte russe à la vanille, meringues à la crème chantilly, gâteau à la Milanaise. Something to satisfy even the fussiest eaters!
New gathering spots: Hotels and restaurants
New venues were opening up where customers could flaunt their social status. Hotels and restaurants were magical places intended largely as gathering spots for the wealthy.
Hotels and inns were originally created to provide travellers with a room for one or several nights. In the 19th century, following the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, there was a boom in hotel construction in Canada. The Glacier House (1886) in British Columbia, the Banff Springs Hotel (1886-1888) in Alberta and the Château Frontenac (1892-1893) in Quebec City were Château-style hotels that provided guests, mostly tourists, with luxurious accommodation and meals.
Other hotels, for example the Windsor Hotel (1876-1878) and the Ritz-Carlton (1912) in Montreal, served primarily a local clientele. Located on Sherbrooke Street, the Ritz-Carleton was the hotel of choice for residents of Montreal's Golden Square Mile, one of Canada's wealthiest neighbourhoods. Any day of the week, guests could gather in the hotel's famous restaurants such as the Grill Room and Oyster Bar. At the time, lunch cost about $1.50, supper about $2.50 and high tea (tea, scones and tea cakes) 30 cents. Clearly, it was only a privileged few who could afford such prices: the average annual income in Canada was $700 at the time.
The meaning of the word "restaurant " has evolved over time. In the 16th century, the word stood for "a fortifying food" or a "comforting beverage." By the 18th century it referred to "an establishment serving meals that one pays for." The first restaurant (in the modern sense) opened in Paris around 1765. It served food directly at the table at any hour of day. During this era restaurant owners based serving styles on aristocratic customs, going from service à la française to service à la russe. In the former a series of dishes was set out and guests served themselves; this was later known as buffet style eating. In the latter, introduced in the 19th century, the various dishes were served one after the other at the table, where customers remained seated. Each guest ordered his or her own meal. This was the type of service that caught on in restaurants because it facilitated calculating the bill based on what each customer ate.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the arrival of large department stores in North America spawned a new kind of restaurant. Across Canada, Eaton's (1869) stores opened, several of which had restaurants designed to attract middle-class women: the Grill Room (1905-Winnipeg), the Georgian Room (1924-Toronto), the 9th (1931-Montreal), among others. These restaurants provided a comfortable and elegant place to celebrate a birthday or have a quiet meal with friends. Their glamorous dining rooms, the high quality of the food and affordable prices made these restaurants very popular. Some of them served as many as 5,000 customers a day!
The rituals surrounding the art of dining had a significant impact on the way you entertained and were entertained in bourgeois circles. Whether dining at home, in a restaurant or at a formal event, you had to be familiar with the codes to affirm your social status. Such occasions allowed the upper class to flaunt its wealth in a society that was deeply impressed by luxury.
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