How the Other Half Ate: The Customs of Downton Abbey at the 92nd St. Y

By Troy Segal

Did you know that, once upon a time:

  • Tea was so expensive it was kept under lock and key?
  • Warm onion juice was considered a cure for deafness?
  • Serving chocolate cake at dinner parties was just not done?

These fascinating factoids all came to light at a lecture given by Francine Segan at the 92nd St. Y, centering around customs in the period of everyone’s favorite costume TV series. Though billed as Downton Abbey: The Art of Tasting, the Thursday, Jan. 15 talk covered not just eating, but entertainment and etiquette during the Edwardian Era. Food historian/cookbook author Segan was enthusiastic, articulate and not above a slightly salty comment or two: In high society, why were married women (and only married women) allowed to have breakfast in bed? Because, presumably, they were worn out from a night of vigorous sex.

downton abbey customs

Half of the lecture—which was punctuated with projections of Downtown Abbey stills alternating with vintage magazine illustrations, ads and articles—involved what the Edwardians would’ve dubbed a parlor game: Segan held up antique objects—some of them somewhat scary-looking—from her personal collection, and the audience tried to guess their purpose. This writer was mystified for the most part, but other spectators managed to identify such devices as a glove finger stretch (which looked like two large chopsticks); an angel food cake cutter (a mini-pitchfork); and a skirt lifter (a pliers-like object that ladies used to keep their dresses from trailing in the mud).

Later on, Segan took her listeners through a formal dinner party, from the issuing of invitations—delivered by hand, 10 days in advance—through the multiple courses—invariably of French cuisine, which left out such native British specialties as Stargazey Pie, Bubble & Squeak and Spotted Dick—to the post-dinner entertainments: music, dancing, or games (blowing soap bubbles was big, sparked by the recent invention of Ivory liquid soap in the 1890s, Sagan said).

It all imparted the impression of an era of abundance and unlimited time and money—for the leisure classes, at least. Things began to shift in the 1920s, with rising costs, the advent of mechanical appliances and the shrinking of the servant pool, as other employment opportunities opened up for the working class, especially women. Dishes began to reflect these social changes: Cookbooks started to offer recipes for “flapper foods”—quick and easy preparations, not unlike contemporary suggestions for cooks coming home from an office today. So big was the vogue for convenience fare that, for a time, canned fruits and vegetables were actually more expensive than their fresh counterparts. Of all the past culinary customs, that seems the most exotic element of all.

Upcoming talks from Francine Segan at the 92nd St. Y include Cutting-Edge Food Trends (Feb. 9) and—just in time for Valentine’s Day—Aphrodisiacs: Food & Sex (Feb. 11).