Innovations in social customs cause consternation at all times in history. This week we find our Victorian domestic muse, Mrs Beetroot, struggling to embrace the newest Johnny-come-lately, the finger bowl. Not only does she have to get her head round the difficulties, she has to have sufficient understanding to pass down authoritative directions to the numerous servants under her control. If she gets it wrong her guests will gossip, her servants will laugh behind her back to the servants of other households on their day off and social disgrace will follow as surely as the soiree follows the tea dance. All because of the disruptive technology of a finger bowl.
The etiquette of the finger bowl.
Lately we have seen the provision of finger bowls at tables of our acquaintance. This foreign custom may suppose to have been instituted by Prince Albert, who is cognisant of many sophistications at courts in foreign countries. The practice is suitable for households of moderate size and, naturally, for those whose occupants are titled people, who will doubtless already be completely familiar with this new practice.
It is not sufficient merely to provide bowls made for another purpose. The authoress herself encountered some difficulty at dinner with an acquaintance who had placed moustache cups at the table in lieu of finger bowls, being unable to obtain the same. The hostess explained that the moustache cups, with the porcelain bar across the lip would give the signal to ladies that they were not to be imbibed and hoped that the bar would serve as a soap rest, when she had obtained moulds for the servants to make sufficiently small cakes of soap. However, while listening to the explanation, one of the guests was in the unfortunate position of accidentally inserting their finger between the moustache rest and the rim in the smaller part and subsequently being unable to remove it. The more the guest struggled surreptitiously to remove the errant digit, the more it swelled, becoming enlarged and throbbing painfully. As her inability to remove the encircling crockery in a ladylike manner became evident she was obliged to enlist the aid of the butler, who, having emptied the contents into an unnecessarily large jug, first publicly greased her finger with butter, to no avail, then plunged it, with the attached cup, into a specially summoned bowl of ice water, then at last fetched the carpenter, from his day off, with a hammer. The wretched teacup having been smashed to smithereens, the guest spent the next six weeks locating a matching cup for an exorbitant price, that she was obliged to pay in order to keep her friend, for whom she no longer cares.
Wherefore the primary occupation of the hostess contemplating the introduction of finger bowls to her table is to locate and purchase the correct item, in sufficient quantities of three dozen at least to allow for breakages, as it is not seemly to expect a guest to replace a broken bowl even if it is decorated with roses. Though they seemed to me to be more like pink cabbages and not well delineated, at all. Larger department stores and crockery purveyors may obtain supplies quite soon. Ramekins are no substitute, being too small to accommodate the fingers of a gentleman and porridge bowls, being of a substantial size, would take up most of the table. Finger glasses, where obtainable, are very acceptable, though small flower vases are not, moreover they may be the cause of difficulties if the finger ring of a lady or her bracelet, or lace cuffs slide into the vase by mistake, whereafter a fishing expedition would be unseemly and attract unwanted attention.
The finger bowls should be set upon the table with the dessert. The hostess, allowing for the ignorance of guests who do not move in the beau monde, in more provincial places, should give the lead by coughing discreetly to make sure the guests are watching and then demonstrate the mode of utilisation herself. She should first fold back her lace cuffs, remove engageants, if wearing older fashioned dress and leather evening gloves, if in modern attire, having removed all finger rings that may be lost in the process. If necessary her ladies’ maid should wait upon her to assist with unbuttoning the gloves or sleeves, carrying a button hook at all times for the purpose. All clothing and jewellery should be laid neatly upon the bread plate, unless it has been used, in which case butter remaining on the plate may be taken up by the glove, which would be quite spoiled. In this case a fresh plate should be fetched.
The hostess, having attracted the attention of the company, should place the tips of her fingers only into the bowl and move them around, slightly, in a dainty manner. At no time should a vigorous sousing movement cause waves that might proceed over the edges of the bowl and make contact with the napery. Wholehearted washing is to be discouraged; the water should at no time be rubbed up the arm or at all as far as the elbow. The fingers should then be risen in a vertical manner and placed into the waiting cloth, held by the butler, to the right side of the lady at all times during the procedure.
It is essential that the demonstration is carried out in a manner adequately timely to prevent thirsty gentlemen drinking the contents of the finger bowl, or gargling with it. Any guest wetting and wringing their napkin or removing their socks and attempting to wash the same in the bowl should be prevented immediately, and, if necessary, restrained by the footmen.
It has been suggested that a slice of lemon could decorate the bowl and freshen the water. One could further moot a small flower, a slice of orange, in season, a sprig of parsley, possibly a tiny decorative tame fish, or, in the winter, very thin slices of potato, for a cleansing effect. Diced carrots, sliced leeks, or indeed any vegetation that may lead to the contents being mistaken for soup are to be avoided. In this case the placing of the bowl with the dessert should suffice to indicate its purpose, no properly schooled Englishman or woman would suppose soup to follow dessert in any household in the land.
This etiquette, having been assimilated into society will, in time, allow even a modest household to dine in a manner equal to that of our own dear Queen and thus, the lady of the house being summoned unexpectedly to court, which one would earnestly desire, will in no way disgrace herself but prove equal to all new fangled social challenges introduced to English royalty who have seen fit to marry foreigners.
God Save The Queen.
And Prince Albert too, naturally.
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