Experiencing the charms of an old-world table setting for Thanksgiving is something Americans are about to rediscover, just for the holiday joy of it! With the intent of fostering greater Thanksgiving history appreciation, the time traveling folks at LetsPlayHistory.org are showing America just how easy it really is to pull together a primitive table reminiscent of, if not authentic to, 1621 New England.
The following 7 Table-Setting Steps will walk you through the basics of re-creating period ambiance through both English and Native Wampanoag place settings. These steps are taken from the complete living-history how-to guide, The American Patriot’s Treasury of Thanksgiving Dinner Ideas: Old-World Table Settings, Recipes, Games, Hand Crafts, and Party Ideas for Cultural Enrichment and Pleasure.
Step 1: Make your own table cover and serviettes
The most authentic fabric choice for the 1621 table is linen, with white being far and away the most popular color choice of the time period. Natural colors were also used, however, as was cotton fabric. Whatever your preference, buy enough fabric to cover your table, and calculate yardage for serviettes based on width of fabric and size desired (there was no standard: serviettes are described as being “bath towel-sized,” and could have been either rectangular or square). Cut all pieces out on the grain, then hand finish the edges with cotton thread for the greatest authenticity, or machine finish all edges. For more details on making serviettes see the link following this article.
Step 2: Buy your wood bowls or plates
Wood bowls and plates are fairly easy to find new in today’s market. Simply search online using “Wood Plates” as your search terms, and you’ll have plenty of providers to choose from. In the LPH guide you will find resources for learning how to turn your own plates, or for buying unfinished plates and finishing them in period authentic fashion. A narrow brim plate increases the style authenticity for the time period.
Step 3: Shop for metal mugs
Reproduction pewter mugs are the hardest table item to find, whether new or used. Even finding reasonably priced steel, tin, or aluminum mugs can prove a challenge. Try shopping second hand stores, eBay, outdoor outfitters, and flea markets. To relieve stress, be resigned to having mismatched, less-authentic mugs the first year, and go with whatever you can find. Then join in the wholesale purchasing co-op at LetsPlayHistory.org for new, lead-free sets of 8 reproduction mugs (and other pewter items).
Step 4: Omit your forks, and add proper spoons and knives
As of 1621, the English still thought forks sinfully effeminate, and they wouldn’t use them. Instead, their pointed, straight-edge knives were used like the fork is used today. Additionally, the pointed knife tip was necessary for dipping salt. Pewter spoons are another item very difficult to find, but authentic alternatives would include hand carved wood or bone spoons.
Step 5: Add a salt dip
Pewter salt dips are the easiest of the pewter items to find, at least in used condition. They measured roughly 3 to 4-inches across the mouth, and were set out in the center of the table to be used communally. A small wood bowl of similar dimensions also fits the bill for period authenticity, though it wouldn’t have been as common among the middle class Mayflower pilgrims.
Step 6: Create an optional Wampanoag place setting
If you would like to stir everyone’s delight, add a plausible Wampanoag place setting to your Thanksgiving table. Primitive hand carved bowls and spoons are an authentic option. Inverted turtle shells are a favorite in theory, however be aware that real turtle shells pose certain health risks. For imitation turtle shells join the wholesale purchasing co-op at LetsPlayHistory.org. As for Native knives, flint knives are the only authentic choice, as in 1621 the Native Peoples were not yet using steel objects. Many tribes across America still make flint knives, and a number of craftsmen sell on eBay. Purchasing information, as well as resources for learning how to make your own flint knives, are found in the LPH guide.
Step 7: Add optional decorations, music, prayers
If you really want to “wow” your guests, enhance the old-world ambiance with hand made period décor items, traditional English or Wampanoag music, and offer Native prayers, as well as English prayers spoken in the archaic King James vernacular (a potentially humorous endeavor, indeed!). You could also introduce a period card game, or other activity while you wait for the turkey to cook. The possibilities are endless. See the LPH guide for many more early New England suggestions.