You Want to Set a Table Like Betty Draper? You can, and its cheap too!

By Renee Corbino

Screen Shot 2013-01-27 at 10.58.57 PMYou’re ready to host a formal dinner for a special occasion and you want to throw it Mad Men style?  Betty Draper in Season 2, Episode 8, titled “A Night to Remember” throws a formal dinner party for  several of Don’s business partners.  Her table is exquisitely set with fine china, silver, beautiful linens, and sterling silver flatware.  The good new is that period items that are similar to Betty’s are readily available on the second hand market and at a cheap price too! There’s bad news, but we’ll get to that later in the post.

If you want to host parties with a mid-century theme, and want to make it as accurate as possible, the very first thing you’ll want to do is get yourself a copy of Emily Posts Book of Etiquette. I’ve borrowed my father in-laws copy from 1960, so the information in there is just what Betty would have been reading when she was preparing for a social function.  These books are readily available from ABE, and those dating to 1960 should run you about $5, plus shipping.  Emily Post provides her reader with advice on who to invite, what to serve, how to seat them, and how to set your table (she emphasizes that everything be symmetrical).

Linens are the foundation of your table, and there is no better way to exude elegance than a well made, beautiful table cloth. Betty set her table with a white cloth (linen, silk, or damask) which was quite beautiful and elegant! (Emily Post instructs that “white damask, which for a formal dinner is always best, a pad must be put under it” in order to protect the table underneath from damage by spilled liquids) But let’s be honest here, a white table cloth?  How long did that really last? With all of the drinking and smoking going on, it must’ve been a wreck by the end of the night! Damask and silk table cloths are quite common and are found in abundance on eBay and Live Auctioneers. On LiveAuctioneers, groups of linens typically sell for around $150, and with the chances of one getting destroyed from dinner, you can have several in reserve for the next party.

Screen Shot 2013-01-27 at 11.13.31 PMNo table is complete without candlesticks and in the 1960’s silver was the height of elegance. More than likely, Betty’s candlesticks are weighted silver, and she would have paid handsomely for them. Fully sterling candlesticks will run you a bit more these days, with silver prices trading so high. Screen Shot 2013-01-27 at 11.44.36 PMThis set of Gorham sterling candlesticks (which would be stunning in their simplicity with a good polish), are similar to those that grace Betty’s table and were up for auction on February 2, 2013 at Greater London Auctions in Houston, Texas.  Their estimate was $50-75, and they sold for $50. More ornate ones sell for slightly more, but rarely will exeed $100. These short candlesticks are quite common and you should be able to find a nice set with only a little searching.

 

Crystal stemware, that glimmers and sparkles in the candlelight, is readily available online and at estate auctions.  The 10-40% of retail price rule holds firm in this market, as stemware is delicate and must be hand washed, and its not as popular as it once was. The most popular brands in the mid century were Waterford and Baccarat, both high quality status symbols. Screen Shot 2013-02-14 at 7.34.59 AMA 36 piece grouping is up for auction on the 23rd of February from Midwest Auctions, and with a modest starting price of $200 these glasses are likely to be a bargain.  Even today, gold rimmed china is an extremely elegant choice for table setting.  Its one of the few patterns of china that has lasted the test of time, and continued to be sought after even today.  The good news for those of you who want to set your table in the mid-century style, gold rimmed china is extremely pervasive on the auction market, and can be had relatively inexpensively.  You’ll have to make a bit of an investment, but whats a few hundred dollars when it comes time to set your table and impress your guests? Screen Shot 2013-02-17 at 8.59.40 AM This set of Lenox gold rimmed dinner ware, although slightly more ornate than Betty’s, only sold for $350. Sterling silver flatware is another key piece of the mid-century formal dinner party, and although its nearly impossible to find the exact pattern of Betty’s flatware, as an example I chose this set of Reed & Barton Francis 1 sterling flatware which sold in 2009 at Dallas Auction Gallery. Screen Shot 2013-02-17 at 9.15.25 AMThere’s no selling price, but a 2009 hammer wouldn’t be relevant anyway these days with silver trading at nearly $30, and that is ultimately what is driving prices.  In current prices, this flatware set will run you between $3000-4000 at auction, higher if you buy retail. Thousands and thousands of flatware, china, and crystal sets can be purchased through Replacements Ltd, but that will run you high retail prices, but its great if you are looking for a full set of a specific pattern, one or two pieces to fill in an existing set that got broken or sent through the dishwasher.

 

As the main course, Betty makes lamb with mint jelly, a very popular dish in the mid 20th century.  A recipe from an early Joy of Cooking, gives some insight into how Betty prepared this classic dish. (A more modern recipe for roast lamb can be found here)

Lamb Roast
Remove from the refrigerator at least a half hour before cooking:
Wipe with a damp cloth and season with salt and pepper, and dredge with flour.
You may cut narrow gashes in the sides with a skewer and place in them: Sliver of garlic.
Place the lamb, fat side up, in a pan in a slow oven, preheated to 300 degrees.
Roast it for approximately 30-35 minutes per pound.

Mint jelly
Heat: 3 tablespoons water
Dissolve in it: 1 1/2 tablespoons confectioners sugar
Cool the sirup and add: 2/3 cup finely chopped mint leaves
1/2 cup strong vinegar

Screen Shot 2013-01-27 at 11.04.04 PMSo, you’re all set.  You’ve combed the internet auction sites for the best deals on beautiful table linens, silver candle sticks, gold rimmed china, crystal wine glasses, and even a recipe for roast lamb. Now all you need is some fresh flowers for a centerpiece and good company, and you’re all set to host an exquisite Mad Men themed formal dinner party. So, this post should end there, right?  Well, remember I mentioned the bad news?  Well, here it is:

There’s a reason why the items are readily available at a relatively inexpensive price.  What Mad Men didn’t show you, was the immense amout of work that Betty has to go through to clean up after the dinner party.  The linens, crystal glasses, china, flatware, and serving pieces were all washed by hand.  You have a dishwasher you say?  You can’t put these items into a dishwasher.  Screen Shot 2013-01-27 at 11.11.20 PMThe beautiful gilt rim on the china will wear away, the glasses could possibly chip, and the sterling flatware will wear away from the chemicals in the detergent.  Speaking of sterling, also what you didn’t see was the polishing that went into making those pieces sparkle. People don’t entertain like they used too, and convenience, rather than social perception, is the driving force behind dinnerware.

 

All of that being said, if you have the time and the energy, entertaining “Betty Draper style” is a classy way to host a dinner or a party.  Your guests will be impressed, and they don’t have to know that you didn’t spend an arm and a leg putting all the pieces together!

About Renee Corbino
Renee Corbino has a decade of experience in the auction industry. Her expertise covers a broad spectrum of fine and decorative arts and antiques including: paintings, silver, ceramics, furniture, netsuke and more. She received her Bachelor’s degree with a double major in classical studies & art history from the University of Maryland, College Park and her Master of Decorative Arts from the Smithsonian & George Mason University.

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