“The dining room should be a light, cheerful room,” Mary Lockwood Matthews writes in her 1921 textbook, Elementary Home Economics: First Lessons in Sewing and Textiles, Foods and Cookery, and the Care of the House. Matthews intended her textbook “for use in classes beginning the study of foods and cookery and also of sewing and textiles,” and she addresses at length the importance of comfort in the household, especially in rooms where the family enjoys their meals. Dining rooms must therefore “be large enough to permit easy passing behind the chairs when persons are seated around the table.” The room’s décor should also produce feelings of cheerful encouragement in diners. “The walls,” Matthews continues
should be finished in light colors rather than dark, which tend to make the room appear gloomy. The window curtains should be of a kind easily laundered, since draperies in a dining room are apt to hold dirt and odors and need frequent cleaning. The floor is best made of hard wood, as a rug may then be used instead of a carpet. A dining-room floor would be more sanitary if no covering were used, but the noise made by using a bare floor is annoying to many persons.
Matthews follows her disquisition on the subtleties of dining room appointments with helpful hints on the manners ideally observed at the dining table. “Never go to the table unless hands and face are clean and the hair is in order,” she advises, following with an injunction to “never complain about the food. If it is not the kind desired, it need not be eaten.” Above all, Matthews warns, “do not talk about disagreeable things during the meal.”
Matthews stern insistence on dining room aesthetics and habits may seem fussy, but she writes in a time when the dining room was the center of familial social activity. With each meal bonds between family members were forged and strengthened, and eating was more about having an occasion to share thoughts and anecdotes about the day’s events than mere bodily nourishment. In many modern households dining rooms are more showrooms than sites of social congress, but the early twentieth century dining room was a place for middle-class families to convene regularly in order to delight in each other’s company.
At the end of Elementary Home Economics, Matthews shares a recipe (or “laboratory exercise,” as she terms it) for “Perfection Salad,” an unusual but colorful dish likely to inspire mealtime conviviality.
½ c. sugar
½ c. cold water
½ c. vinegar
2 c. boiling water
Juice of one lemon
2 tbsp. granulated gelatin
1 tsp. salt
2 c. sliced celery
1 c. shredded cabbage
3 pimentos, chopped
Soak the gelatin in the cold water for a few minutes. Add the boiling water and sugar. Stir until all the gelatin and sugar are dissolved. Add lemon juice, vinegar and salt. Let cool until mixture begins to “set,” then stir in vegetables. Wet the inside of individual molds with cold water. Pour in gelatin mixture. Keep in cold place until “set.” Remove from mold, serve on lettuce with mayonnaise dressing.