In homes across the United States, families sit down around their dining tables to share a meal together known as the Family Dinner. This can be a joyous occasion or a contentious one. Whether you feel warm and fuzzy or grit your teeth at the thought, the family dinner is an opportunity for familial communication that didn’t always exist. As dining as a family became an institution in American life, it evolved from being a time for restraint to being a time for expression — an evolution visible in art and film.
Before the late 18th century, it was difficult for American families to dine together regularly, in part because dining rooms and dining tables were not yet a thing. Rooms and tables had multiple uses, and families would eat in shifts, if necessary. If there weren’t enough chairs for all members of the family, the men would sit and the women and children might stand, coming and going from the table. (Blame the patriarchy.)
The rise of the American family dinner depended upon the arrival of the dining table, and the dining room, from Europe, where they had been embraced since Elizabethan times. One of the first American homes to have a room specifically meant for dining was Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, built in 1772. The dining room, with the dining table at its center, began to be incorporated into wealthy homes across the country, eventually trickling down to the middle class.
From the mid-19th century onward, the dining room was used as a place to cultivate a sense of family. Now that there was a designated space (and enough chairs around the table) for families to dine together, there were also designated family meal times — which Victorian parents used to educate their children on religion, conversation and table manners.
Laid upon the dining table was an expectation that all family members be agreeable, pious and unified. From the Victorian era through the 1950s, this idealistic notion was impressed upon Americans. In 1943, the sociologist James H.S. Bossard wrote that “it is at the dining table, and particularly at dinner time, that the family is apt to be at its greatest ease.” The same year, The Saturday Evening Post published Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want, in which a family dining around a Thanksgiving table represents the strength of American values during World War II. The painted subjects not only have food, but are almost relentlessly happy, smiling pointedly at each other and the viewer.
The 1950s emphasized the importance of a happy nuclear family. And what better place to showcase it than at a dining room table? Father sits at the head of the table; mother is at the opposite end. They’re flanked by their docile children, as shown on TV shows like Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best.
A Date With Your Family, a ’50s instructional film, provides a disturbing peek into the era’s rigid rules for dining with Mom and Dad. Mother and daughter switch into nice attire for the meal, because, the narrator tells us, “the women of this family seem to feel that they owe it to the men of the family to look relaxed, rested and attractive.” To avoid any distress, one must stick to his or her assigned role, which of course requires a lot of suppression. As the narrator states, “the table is no place for discontent.”
This film makes dinners full of arguments and outbursts seem like a breath of fresh air. Thankfully, angst-ridden family dinners couldn’t be stamped out completely. Even Bossard acknowledged that, “There are families in which few meals are completed … without some member leaving the table in tears, anger, or disgrace.” While many enjoy their time with family at the dinner table, it is also a space where one can freely air one’s grievances to other family members. These kinds of dinners are accepted — and even celebrated — by a modern sensibility.
For example, artist Louise Bourgeois’ 1974 sculpture The Destruction of the Father represents a violent reaction to the kind of dinner idealized in A Date with Your Family. As Bourgeois frequently described the work:
“This piece is basically a table, the awful, terrifying family dinner table headed by the father who sits and gloats. … The mother, of course, tries to satisfy the tyrant, her husband. The children are full of exasperation. … So in exasperation we grabbed the man, threw him onto the table, dismembered him and proceeded to devour him.”
Anti-patriarchal cannibalism may not occur at most tables, but everyone can relate to a mid-dinner outburst.
Film and television also revel in the less-than-docile nature of modern family dinners, which make for perfect theater. Take, for example, the tense dinner scene in American Beauty, or family dinner scenes in The Sopranos, which rarely pass without a disagreement of some kind. Victorian Americans may not have envisioned this kind of behavior when they made the dining table a pillar of social values, but the beauty of the family dinner is that, time and again, it proves that family dynamics cannot be controlled. The dining table has become a stage for all kinds of human emotion — even discontent.
Mackensie Griffin writes about the history of food and the dining table.