There is wide range for individual taste and artistic arrangement in table decoration, which is limited only by the resources at one's command.
Pleasing effects of color are perhaps the first consideration. Of late it has been a fashion to have one prevailing color. In many cases this is very suitable as well as complimentary to the guests entertained. For instance, a white dinner to a bride, pink to young people, red to a Harvard company, or yellow to those with Princeton affiliations.
The scheme of color is often carried through the menu as far as possible; the dishes served corresponding in color to the table decorations. Where this is done the colors should be light and delicate. Dark shades are not pleasing, and suggest the name "painted foods," which has been scornfully given to them.
Of all colors green is the easiest to carry out, and perhaps the most pleasing. The many shades of green give variety and contrasts. Ferns make a light and dainty centerpiece, and rival flowers in beauty. For the menu spinach gives a soup, vegetable, and coloring for sauces. Green salads are numerous. Angelica makes a decoration for desserts. Pistachio nuts give flavor and color to ice-cream, icings, and bonbons. A very beautiful and elaborate dinner on this scheme is described below, which was called in the invitation "Al Fresco," and in its design and execution well simulated an out-door entertainment. Green is a soft, reposeful color; red, pink, and yellow are gayer, and give a more festive aspect. Yellow is sunny in effect, and for a yellow dinner the color scheme may be obtained with yellow flowers, oranges, silver-gilt compotiers, gilded china, and with light diffused through yellow shades. For the culinary part the yolks of eggs render important service for coloring, covering, and garnishing, and oranges furnish many delicious dishes.
White dinners are also easy to arrange with white flowers, silver, a profusion of cut-glass, lace shades, white grapes, spun sugar, whipped cream, white sauces, celery, whites of eggs, white meats, etc.
A white dinner is likely to be too severe, however, unless carefully managed. Delicate ferns can be mixed with white flowers without changing the effect, and a warm glow may be thrown on the table from a center light in the chandelier, screened with thin pink or yellow silk, and raised high, so as not to appear as a part of the decoration. The most beautiful pictures of snow scenes are not a dead white, but reflect the color of the sunset or atmosphere.
Fruits and flowers typical of the season are in good taste, and usually more pleasing than hot-house products. In the spring, tulips, daffodils, lilies of the valley, or any wild flowers. Goldenrod, chrysanthemums, and asters in their times. Autumn leaves and berries later, holly and mistletoe at Christmas, and lilies at Easter, while in the summer the fields and lanes afford a wealth of material. At other times, and where the purse does not permit indulgence in roses and forced flowers, the resources lie in potted plants and fruits. Any plant not too large, which looks fresh and healthy, will make a pleasing centerpiece. The crotons and dracaenas give beautiful colors. A dish of growing ferns makes an attractive, satisfactory and enduring center ornament. With care the ferns will last a long time, and at small expense can be renewed. Double silver-plated boxes, both square and oval, are made for this use.
Fruits are always pleasing and give good color effects.
The success of any decoration depends largely upon the proper lighting of the table; lacking this, beautiful arrangements may appear commonplace or wholly lose their effect.
The decorated dinner-table should be the especial picture of the room, the conspicuous object of interest and beauty for the time; therefore the light should be centered upon it and the rest of the room form but the shadowy background. The pleasantest light is from shaded single candles, placed at intervals around the table, and a more brilliant light thrown on the center of the table from the shaded drop-light of a chandelier, or from large candelabra holding groups of candles.
Small lamps which fit candlesticks are much used, and when there are open windows and drafts they give much less trouble than candles. Effects of color are largely obtained from the use of shades. These vary in size and shape to suit the fancy or fashion of the moment, and are made of silk, lace, or paper; for the latter, crape papers are much used. Shades recently brought from Paris were of translucent paper painted by hand to imitate china. Making shades is pleasant fancy work, and the materials are so inexpensive that one can easily indulge in a variety of them. With a centerpiece of polished red apples and candles with red shades, or a potted plant and green shades, quite a definite and pleasing character may be given to a simple dinner. High ornaments should be avoided except they be candelabra or lamps which do not obstruct the view across the table. It is very annoying to be forced to look around ornaments when trying to talk to a person seated opposite at table; such a screen effectually debars general conversation. On large or long tables, large ornamental pieces should be used. Those appropriate to a small table often appear scanty and insufficient on a large one. Masses of one color are more effective than mixtures, and a display of abundance may be made on large tables while on small ones daintiness is more pleasing.
Confectioner's pieces are again being used for dinner decorations. Baskets and horns of plenty made of nougat or pulled sugar, holding glace fruits, and forms made of spun sugar are in good taste, but imitations of art objects and high pyramids, such as are used on supper tables, should be excluded.
A pleasing decoration for a hot day may be made of a block of ice set in a pan deep enough to hold the drippings, but placed on something to raise it above the sides of the pan. The pan should be concealed with moss and ferns, or flowers, arranged around it loosely so as to partly conceal the ice also. A hole cut through the center of the block of ice, and a flat candle, such as are used in night lamps, placed within it, gives a brilliant and lovely effect. The block of ice should be cut square and weigh at least ten pounds. This decoration is easily managed in the country, where ferns are readily obtainable.
A pan filled with floating water-lilies, together with their buds and leaves, the pan being concealed in a bed of moss and ferns, makes also a pretty decoration for a luncheon table. These flowers close at night, and so are only suitable for daylight service. A table may be made beautiful by entirely covering it with a mass of the same kind of flowers, leaving only enough space around the edge to hold the plates and glasses. The flowers may or may not be raised in the center of the table, or may in any way simulate a garden-bed. When daisies are used they should be plentifully mixed with grasses as they are in the field. Care must be used not to make the decoration high, or the effect will be lost; and to avoid this the stems of the flowers, cut the desired length, can be stuck into wet sand or moss, held in flat tins. This will hold them firmly in place, as well as keep them fresh. An English fashion is to have a piece of silver ornament the table, without accessories of fruits or flowers. This severe but elegant simplicity is perhaps a reaction from the overloading of tables which has long prevailed.
A pink dinner given in Washington was arranged as follows: The table was round and large enough to seat eighteen persons. A covering of thin ivory-colored India silk over pink was cut round to fit the table, and a frill of lace ten inches deep fell over a ruffle of pink silk on the edge. A large square of silk gauze embroidered in pink covered the center of the table. A mound of maiden-hair ferns formed the centerpiece. Around this were placed pink candles in Venetian-glass candlesticks and shaded with full frills of lace over pink. The bonbon dishes and all the glasses were of Venetian and Bohemian glass. Four ornamental candy pieces were used: two were garden hats holding glazed cherries, and a pink ribbon tied around each hat held a large bunch of pink roses. The other two were baskets, and held frosted grapes which were half hidden under spun sugar. Ornamental silver was omitted, as being out of harmony with the other decorations.
A dinner unique in its character was given a few years ago by Lord Dufferin, the English ambassador to France. The centerpiece was flowers, and candelabra lighted the table; but in place of the dessert dishes which ordinarily do ornamental service were choice bits of bric-a-brac collected by the ambassador in various parts of the world. The curios served as an interesting novelty, and became the subject of conversation. A dinner given in Jamaica is described, where orchids in profusion were suspended over the table, some on climbing vines, and others, of such delicate form and texture as made it seem not unnatural, appeared as though floating in the air.
The "Al Fresco" dinner referred to above was in imitation of a woodland scene. It was served in a dining-room the walls of which were hung with tapestries. The ceiling decoration was blue sky with white clouds. A profusion of palms, bay-trees, and rubber-plants were placed about the room and screened the side-boards. The dining-table was a mass of verdure. It was round, seating eighteen persons. The whole center of the table was depressed eight inches, leaving an outside rim fourteen inches wide for the plates and glasses. The center space was filled with growing plants, the top of the pots being on a level with the outside rim. The pots were concealed by mosses and loose ferns making a solid mass of green. Four tall slender plants rose from the center, the rest was of ferns and lycopodium with here and there a few primroses. Green candles with fluffy green shades in glass candlesticks were so distributed as to give sufficient light. The space left for the dinner service was covered with light-green India silk over canton flannel. On the back of the menu cards were water-color sketches of forest scenes. The menu was largely composed of products of the forest. The aspect of this dinner was really sylvan, and the idea so well carried out that the elaboration of it was artistically hidden. From the time of Lucullus, dinner-givers have been striving for novelties, but as a rule any radical departure from conventional forms is a failure.