Friday, November 9, 2012

Dinner or Supper?

There's been some discussion of late amongst a few of us living historians on the period-correct usage for the lunch/dinner/supper terminology. In our modern times I believe it's pretty widespread and accepted to call the morning meal "breakfast," (in use in defining the morning meal since the middle ages, according to the Webster etymology dictionary) and the afternoon meal "lunch." And I've heard both "dinner" and "supper" intertwined for the evening meal.
But I have read and been told that in times past "dinner" was actually the afternoon meal with "supper" as the evening meal.
Confused? Me, too.
And so were a few other reenactors.
I decided to do a little research to try to figure this mess out. Because I want to know just what meal I am eating!
I went to the Historical Information index I created on my computer to find out where I could find the answer to this pressing question.
What's a Historical Information Index? You mean you don't have one??
Let me explain...
A number of years ago I decided to use Excel to make an index of the historical information found in my many history books and magazines. I recall attempting to find something about maple sugaring and I didn't know which of the literally hundreds (maybe over a thousand by now) mags and books to look in to find that info, which really frustrated me. As it stood then, it could've taken me a very long time to find the information from varying sources to reach my goal of a comprehensive look on the subject (I prefer to find multiple articles on whatever subject I am researching for a more rounded idea). It was then that I decided to go through my historical library magazine-by-magazine and book-by-book and index as much of the information as I could, which is still ongoing - just a little bit every evening...subject, magazine/book title, and the page the info is on.
And it has served me well, just so you know.
Anyhow, when the discussion of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper came up, a friendly discussion ensued with a bit of disagreement. So, off I went to my Historical Information index and, lo and behold, I found numerous sources to back up my "dinner" was actually the afternoon meal with "supper" as the evening meal train of thought.
So, here is what I found  -
This first source I am using is called Everyday Life in the United States before the Civil War 1830-1860. Well indexed and well sourced in itself, it contains a wealth of general information of everyday life during the period mentioned:
Our servant prepares our dinner
"Breakfast was taken at 7:00, when the members of the family, completely dressed, met around the dinner table; dinner, generally eaten at noon, was delayed until 2:00 on Sundays (with) the men always present except in large cities, where the distance of the business areas from residential areas was beginning to prevent them from coming home at noon; supper was at 5 or 6 o'clock."

The next source I will use actually comes from a diary from 1859. You can't get a better source than that:
The Cormany Diaries. I have mentioned this book numerous times in my writings for I have found little better than this for its first-hand accounts of everyday life during the mid to late 19th century:
(Rachel Cormany, speaking of her husband Samuel - spelling and phrasing intact)
"April 26, 1862
This has been rather a sad day for me. My Sml. is has another attack of dyptheria. Yesterday morn. when he awakened his throat was sore. still he went out to the sugar bush & worked hard all day & did not take time to attend himself. he ate no breakfast, but ate dinner & supper."

Dinner - the noontime meal and the biggest meal of the day
Another book I own called Expansion of Everyday Life 1860-1876, which is along the lines of the first book I have listed here, says this:
"Whether attending to daily or seasonal chores, most housekeepers interrupted their workday between noon and one o'clock to welcome their families home to dinner. Children, when possible, came home from school. Fathers, unless working a considerable distance away, also joined the family circle. Dinner was the principal meal of the day, a time for families to relax and converse, though the tradition seemed to be dying in large cities by the 1870's. 
The family dinner at midday and the evening tea of inland towns at which parents and children gather about the tables and learn to know one another through the interests and feelings of every day..."

From a neat little book written by a former 1st person presenter at Greenfield Village's Eagle Tavern, Bert G Osterberg, about tavern life during the mid-19th century called Silas Cully's Tavern Tales also gives credibility to the dinner/supper dilemma (written in his 1st person manner):
Dining at the Eagle Tavern
"Now, as for your meals. Your fifty-cents will get you two meals and a place in the bed. You can have dinner and supper, or supper and breakfast. Your choice. Dinner's being served soon, the big meal of the day.Supper's later - usually leftovers from the dinner. At home most women just put doilies over the dinner food to keep the flies off and leave it on the table for supper. Here, we'll scrape the leftovers onto platters and you can help yourself at supper."

History Magazine (from the October/November 2001 issue) gives one of the clearest reasons that I have been able to find on the eating habits of the 19th century:
"Today many people find it strange that the biggest meal of the day once centered around noon, but it made great sense at the time. Artificial lighting such as oil lamps and candles were expensive, and provided weak illumination at best. So People went to sleep at sundown, because it's difficult to work and eat in the dark. The last meal of the day was a rushed affair, a quick snack before the sunlight went out. Only the extremely wealthy had candles to burn (in large supply) and could waste daylight hours sleeping in late. So supper, the third and last meal of the day, was usually eaten before the sun went down or shortly after.
The English knew the last meal of the day as supper, and it was a light repast, usually made of cold leftovers from dinner."
That same article also speaks of lunch:
"Luncheon, as a regular daily meal, only developed in the U.S. in the 1900's. In the 1945 edition of Etiquette (magazine), Emily Post still referred to luncheon as generally given by and for women, but it is not unusual, especially in summer places or in town on Saturday or Sunday, to include an equal number of men."

As some folks had also mentioned, in many cases it could also be a regional thing. And I do agree with that. But it does seem that most regions tended to follow suit with the rest of the country in this case, for the quotes listed are from a variety of area including Michigan, New England, the south, and the general mid-west.
On a personal note, my own great great grandmother, Linnie Raby, commented to her grandson Bud Monterosso (who told told me during one of our many family history talks) that when she was still living in England (Northamptonshire) she referred to the midday meal as dinner and the evening meal as supper. But, when her father took his midday meal in a sack out to the field (he was a farmer) he called it a lunch.
Anyhow, I certainly hope you found this little bit of information not only informative but also a fun fact to share and amaze your co-living historians with.



GinaBVictorian said...

Hi Ken, I'm so glad that I'm not the only one who wonders about the correctness of the two terms. While growing up it was always dinner at noon and supper in the eve. And then when I got older and starting liking Victorian stuff and moved away from a small town to a larger city I decided it was to be lunch at noon and dinner for evening. But actually I think which ever is going to be the bigger meal should be called dinner. So I don't know, but thanks for sharing your research with us. Gina

Lady M said...

I can confirm that my ranching family from the Southwestern region of the U.S has always referred to "dinner" as the midday meal, "supper" as the evening meal, and "lunch" was carried out to work when the men would be out too far to come in for "dinner". Supper was always the lightest meal of the day. Usually consisting of cornbread and buttermilk, or leftovers with bread and butter. Ranchers are up early and start working before even eating breakfast. Breakfast was always large and included plenty of protein. Dinner was also a good size, to account for all the calories necessary to get through the day. My grandfather always believed that going to bed on an overly full stomach was bad for your health. I tend to think he was right.

Miss Virginia said...

That was very interesting, thank you! I love your index idea!!

Virginia said...

I grew up in a SW Iowa farming community that was heavily Danish & German. Dinner was always at noon, supper at the end of the day. Lunch was served 2x a day: about 10am coffee & cake/cookies and about 3pm coffee, open faced sandwiches, & cake/cookies. We have always considered calling the evening meal dinner to be a city thing!