My mom is selling our dining room table.
I’ve only eaten at it a handful of times in my life because my sisters and I surely would’ve made a mess of it when we were kids. Instead, our family ate in the kitchen, which also doubled as a place to do homework, or to watch something on TV when the living room wasn’t the right vibe. Over the years, our dining table became a dumping ground for assorted crap: bills, flyers from school, Amazon packages. What was the point anymore?
The table’s rich mahogany top is in near-perfect condition because of the protective cover it came with, but nobody on Nextdoor or Facebook Marketplace seems interested. My parents paid thousands for the table and its six chairs but haven’t been able to get even a few hundred bucks for it.
You might relate. Imagine you’re eating dinner at home. It’s a regular Tuesday evening, not any kind of special occasion. Where do you picture yourself?
It’s likely that this scenario in your mind’s eye is not unfolding in a formal dining room. Dinner happens everywhere now: on the couch while streaming a television show, hunched over a kitchen countertop, on a commute home. The shift happened right under our noses — in a 2019 survey about cooking at home, while 72 percent of respondents grew up eating at a dining room table, only 48 percent of them still do so now. The American dining room is dying a slow death, and we’ve barely batted an eye. For the sake of convenience, we don’t sit down for capital-D dinner anymore.
What has this fade into obsolescence done to the dining table, and to the people who once gathered around it to share a meal? The dining table hasn’t disappeared — there are plenty next to my family’s on Facebook Marketplace — but its meaning seems to have been altered forever.
A formal history of formal dining
The current status of the dining table can only be understood in light of how it used to be used, and what it used to represent. For centuries, having a dining room was seen as a marker of a rich family, and it implied a certain level of dignity.
The ancient Greeks had one of the first popular versions of the formal dining room. Called an andron, this space was meant for men to eat and drink in. They often held symposiums there, where they discussed academia or were entertained by performers. Generally, the men were served by enslaved people or the women of the household. It is one of the earliest examples of the power dynamic that exists at the dining table and in hosting rituals — a collision of class, race, and gender relations, still laid out at dinnertime even today. Across cultures and centuries, dining rooms continued to appear, but the modern American dining room has roots in 1800s Victorian England.
In the Victorian era, the culture adopted the dining room, and it became a decadent display of family and social status. Early American dining rooms were meant to be fancy, with fine furniture to match, and this desire trickled down into the dining room preferences of the 1900s. Older Americans tend to have dining rooms that are cornerstones of their homes — stylized, almost sacred spaces. Rachel Black, an assistant professor of anthropology at Connecticut College, says, “I remember my grandmother having a dining room table that we were never allowed to touch as kids because it was so nice, you wouldn’t use it every day. And you had to have special placemats on it.”
And it wasn’t just the table itself that we valued: tablescapes were an art unto themselves. The old-school housewife was expected to make a warm home, and the ambiance of the dining room was hers to design every evening; a place to flex trophies from travel and gifts from generations ago. Some families would even have dining sets for specific occasions — fine china for Christmas and Easter, for example, or certain anniversaries.
“You got to show off all your lavish things: beautiful chairs, the linens, the plates. There was an art of eating, and an art of living that was associated with a dining table that was huge,” Alice Benjamin, an interior designer for over 20 years who resides in Chicago, told me.
It was part of a long tradition — an aura around dining that communicated refinement. “In the 19th century when you ate, you used very specific utensils — an asparagus server that was only used to serve asparagus or a plate that was only used to serve pineapple. Knowing that was part of the class structure of it,” said Julie Muniz, a futurist and design curator. “There was a cultural feeling about it, that you were more civilized because you ate that way. That was very much a part of the Victorian society that carried over into the United States from Europe, so Americans also ate that way.”
Old-world traditions stuck around for a long time as the transition occurred, but around the 1920s, our interest in casual, relaxed dining was sparked. Architecture and hosting habits were quick to respond in kind. According to The Midcentury Kitchen by Sarah Archer, advertisers began to promote glitzy new appliances to the emerging American middle class. Iceboxes were replaced by refrigerators, cast-iron stoves got swapped out for electric ones, and innovation drew people into the kitchen space. Before, kitchens had been occupied by staff in wealthier homes. Now, they didn’t need staff at all. One ad from the time period even likened a new stove to an “invisible servant.”
Beginning in the 1920s, the kitchen was advertised as a place to have a few friends over for drinks — and a spot to show off all your fancy new technology. “A dedicated kitchen that was meant as a living space that could even be stylish enough to entertain in was a new idea after World War I, and reached its zenith in the years following World War II with the boom in new construction in the US,” Archer wrote to me in an email.
“Starting in the mid-1920s, appliances looked better and worked better, and crucially, there were more middle-class people who had their own kitchens in homes large enough to devote a discrete space to cooking and informal dining.” Manufacturers and advertisers began to introduce the eat-in kitchen to consumers around the 1940s, Archer explained, which changed the relevance of the dining table in American homes forever.
How the kitchen ate the dining room
The decline in the popularity of the dining room, beginning in the 1950s, coincided with several shifts in American eating and home habits. People started to work longer hours. Families eventually ate together less often. The successful marketing of the “TV dinner” by Swanson in 1954 practically begged us to stop using our dining rooms. But the modern emphasis on the kitchen stemmed from a change in hosting patterns.
In the first half of the 20th century, a desire for less formal dining started to take hold. “There are home-keeping manuals from the late 1940s and early 1950s that start to talk about this shift to more casual entertaining with buffet meals,” Alexandra Lange, a design critic, tells me. “The whole vibe just gets very conversation pit, like having stew rather than having three separate dishes on the perfect plate with your napkin and silverware and three wine glasses.”
The eat-in kitchen was a way to stitch a household together by creating a nucleic space. Kids could do their homework and play in view of their parents while meals were prepared. Naturally, people began to eat casual meals in the kitchen — the space was available, and allowed family members to flow between different activities. These days, modern home kitchens are covered with countertops but often have no real singular tables to dine at. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a breakfast nook, a cozy but ultimately tiny corner in which to eat.
As the star power of the dining room began to wane, other design trends were further cemented, from open-concept plans to farmhouse kitchens.
Another popular modern option is having stools float around the kitchen island — sleek in style, not exactly inviting, but popular nonetheless. Lange explains that Christopher Alexander, in his book A Pattern Language, details the paradigm for a farmhouse kitchen: “Basically a big kitchen that has a big table in it and a sofa and becomes this kind of hub of family life. That’s a pattern that people have been adapting to in their homes,” says Lange. “If you’re trying to work and you’re trying to make lunch and your kid is trying to do school, what you need is a bigger room that has places for all of those activities to happen at the same time. But that’s not the way most homes are built.”
Open floor plans also expedited the death of the formal dining room. Taking away walls creates a certain psychological shift. The dining “room” no longer exists, so everywhere is the dining room: the living room, the kitchen table, wherever the need or urge strikes.
“People will cite the development of the ranch home as the beginning of that trend, which started in the ’70s,” says futurist Muniz. “In the ’90s, you really had the development of that open concept. In the ’70s, it might be separated by a half wall or columns, so you still had kind of a division of space.” Open concept allowed for more socializing across the household and less privacy. Much like the farmhouse-style kitchen, it shooed away the dining room in the process.
Today, the informality of home architecture has naturally extended to where we have our nightly meals. “Most American families wouldn’t admit this, but family dinners are more likely to be either at the kitchen island or in front of the TV,” Lange said.
The dining room might be off the table in the modern age
Modern hosting has surprisingly little to do with the dining table. And while entertaining guests is still an important part of American households, it might be less performative and lower stakes than it was before.
Millennials and Gen Z aren’t ruled by the principles of Emily Post the way people were decades ago. I personally associate dining rooms with old people, not my agemates. As Nisha Chittal reported for The Goods, millennials do value friendship, but they don’t have much interest in the theatrics of hosting a traditional dinner party. “Some people might have to sit on the floor, but the important thing is getting together with friends and enjoying each other’s company — not stressing out about tablescapes and etiquette,” she wrote. People dine together wherever and whenever they can, and focus on the quality of their company rather than their surroundings.
Even though some Americans may think back fondly on memories from their family dining rooms, they might not be able to afford to have one themselves. Young people who spend much of their salaries on rent in heavily populated cities don’t exactly have the space for a huge wooden table and china cabinets, let alone the budget.
Plus, what we eat has changed significantly, and it would feel strange to eat takeout on fine china. According to Thrillist, the first online delivery restaurant service, Waiter.com, debuted in the Bay Area in 1995. In 1999, Seamless launched. Grubhub came about in 2004. Then began a delivery service arms race, and here we are in the present with several companies to turn to when we want food fast. In 2020, they raked in $26.5 billion. Grubhub alone went from $8.5 million in revenue in 2010 to $1.8 billion in 2020. The apps are here to stay for the foreseeable future.
The convenience of services like DoorDash and UberEats has brought all kinds of cuisine into our homes, and although it’s not cheap, we feel it’s worth it to avoid the hassle of making dinner. All the cardboard and plastic our delivery and takeout comes in makes it easy to justify skipping out on the typical dining room procession entirely. Where does nice silverware factor in when you’re eating pasta out of a plastic container? Who are you performing for when you choose to sit at the dinner table and neatly eat spaghetti on a nice plate instead of on the couch while bingeing a show?
Black, who focuses in food studies, says that we want to gather outside of our homes with those we care about more often than we might have previously, especially post-pandemic. “I think Americans in particular are increasingly eating in restaurants. There’s this whole desire to engage in food culture. People watch food. People go to restaurants and enjoy it, but I don’t think this whole idea that everyone’s doing a ton of cooking is true.”
Snacks and random meals throughout the day allow for convenience. Cooking, and sharing a meal for that matter, requires a lot more forethought and effort. “No one wants to put in the labor of cooking. There’s all this cheap exploited labor that’s producing food,” said Black, who specializes in analyzing back-of-the-house work in commercial kitchens. Amanda Mull wrote in the Atlantic that “the three-meal-a-day axiom was created to bend human life around the necessity of leaving the home to work elsewhere for the whole day, and now people are bending once again, around a whole new set of challenges.” The pandemic has furthered our consumption of snacks, and our eating habits have fallen even further from what they previously were.
Plus, where would we put our dining tables? Space is a major factor that makes the formal dining room experience hard to replicate. Apartments are getting smaller, and rents are getting higher. Household sizes have been declining, although the pandemic has made many people move back in with their families. While the size of the average home has increased by 1,000 square feet in the last 50 years, this generation doesn’t have as much stuff to fill their McMansions with, if they can afford one.
Even those who do have big, divided spaces in their homes would likely dedicate their square footage to something else. In fact, Benjamin says that she sees affluent people gravitating toward other kinds of rooms instead. “The movie room is one of them. I think that right away gives a sense of status. ‘Oh my God, he has a theater in his own house.’ Also popular: libraries, meditation rooms, separate bathrooms for couples. But surprisingly, not so much the home gym; now that we all work out at home, it has become passé.
The formalities of having a dining room can feel stuffy. The sentiment now is, why bother tiptoeing around your own home? And although eating while walking, driving, on the couch, or even sitting in bed would be considered uncouth even a generation ago, it has become second nature to us now. Our current eating habits might seem ill-mannered when compared to formal dining traditions, but the entire concept of manners has changed radically.
How the tables have turned
“If you bought a house built before 1950, it was very likely to have a formal dining room table. But if you had any extra space in your house over the last six to nine months, it immediately got turned into something new as the family started to spend more time at home,” Lange said.
Today, the dining table still exists, but it often has been tasked with a new purpose: office space. Instead of a place to gather with loved ones to decompress, the dining table has now become a place to work. The pandemic solidified this change, but it’s been a long time coming. Those who found themselves working from home without home offices and desks were forced to work at the dining table, eliminating its use for meals entirely.
American culture also encourages workaholism, and that mindset bleeds over into our home spaces. Plus, vacation time, parental leave, and paid sick days are scarce in this country. No wonder we lost the dining room along the way.
But all that doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in eating together.
We are strapped for time and addicted to our devices. We don’t remember how to dine together, and we didn’t really learn how to do so through all of the noise. We might lack the space to do so, or the discretionary spending to invest in the formalities of the home.
Traditionally, meals were synonymous with togetherness. The idea of Thanksgiving is heavily based on the notion that eating with others is an honor worthy of celebration. Dinnertime is broader now — what time should we eat, in between working and commuting and practicing and studying and all our other -ings? It used to be that it was considered rude to phone someone during dinner, which loosely meant between six and seven at night. Now, it isn’t all that strange to watch adults and children alike text through their shared dinners, if they even salvage enough time and effort to share them at all.
“The family unit’s idea of what it is to eat together, to spend time together, to value the time with each other instead of being with machines is becoming something that people struggle to keep together,” Benjamin says. Dinnertime as a concept often lacks consistency when it comes to setting, timing, and the people involved. Life keeps getting faster, and we keep finding ways to cut corners.
Family life has changed significantly, and we don’t necessarily learn about the world through dinner conversation anymore. It’s all at our fingertips, and our interests when it comes to homemaking are much less heteronormative than before. The dining table, going back to even the ancient Greeks, is intertwined with societal power dynamics and gender roles. “When you look at what’s the function of the family table, and here I’m talking about nuclear families, you’re talking about a very sort of heteronormative concept of family, especially in the post-war period,” says Black. “When you think about what happened at the table, that’s a space in which not only food was shared, but also it’s a place where social norms are reproduced, where children can learn about ‘correct’ behavior at the table.”
And as for the people who are trying to hold onto their dining rooms even as they rapidly disappear? “What they’re really saying is, ‘I want to hold onto my values, that family, that community. All of that is really important to me and how I grew up and I would like that to stay in my household as the model.’ I think the dining room represents all of that — the fight against the rupture of families,” says Benjamin.
Even when the world is safe again, it probably won’t be enough to bring the dining room back from the dead. During the pandemic, people have missed being outside of their homes, and it’s likely that restaurants and bars will be back on the upswing when gatherings resume again. Any romance left in the dining room was killed when it became everybody’s makeshift office, or a forgotten land deserted for delivery dinners. Eating in the dining room was an art form, a kind of performance we don’t want to put on anymore.
Post pandemic, interior designers have predicted post-modernist home trends that are based on themes of comfort, whimsy, and freeform design. The dining room as a concept doesn’t really fit in with that vision. While open-concept design has been popular for years now, people may possibly rethink open spaces in the aftermath of the pandemic. “With Covid, people are realizing that that [the virus] is not conducive to having a family that’s at home trying to work and do remote learning all at the same time in this big open space,” Lange said. It likely won’t be enough to revive the dining room. We’re too far gone.
Yet, there’s something beautiful in the concept of a room dedicated to eating and sharing conversation. There’s a lot of talk about a “loneliness epidemic” — many Americans feel more isolated than ever even though we’re arguably more connected than ever, the pandemic is making it worse, you know the story. We’re consolidating our lives in some ways, but we aren’t necessarily living together with closeness. We lost the dining room as soon as we lost that intimacy. It seems nice to have a designated refuge in the home space, somewhere to gather and discuss the drama of the world over a warm, shared meal. It might be the best way through an increasingly isolating future, but it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll return to our old ways any time soon.
“It was this kind of special, sacred space. I just don’t see that coming back,” Lange said.