By the 18th century, entertaining had developed into a grand art with dinner consisting of a dozen or more courses extending for hours. Fancy does not begin to describe a properly adorned dining table! Every piece of cutlery, the linens, and serving dishes were of the finest quality and workmanship. As important as the aesthetics of a beautifully set table was the need for efficiency to ensure all the guests could eat what they wanted.
Originating in pre-Revolution France where elaborate dining began, an epergne (pronounced a-‘purn and from the French epargne, meaning “economy”) served a dual purpose.
First, it saved space on the table for the numerous covered entrée dishes, platters, meat carving boards, and soup tureens. The typical epergne style had a relatively narrow base, usually with slender legs and small feet, and a dominant column in the middle with a large raised bowl at the top. Stylized branches extended out from the center column, with each of these branches holding smaller dishes or bowls at their ends. The examples above, each from the Georgian period, reveal the economy of space aspect of an epergne, as well as how stunningly fabulous they are.
Second, the always gorgeous epergne economized as a perfect, functional centerpiece. The small, removable bowls and baskets typically held nuts, fruits, condiments, relishes, and other luxuries from the Far East or tropics. Many epergnes had candle holders or thin vases for flowers, the combination an exotic and colorful centerpiece on the table throughout the entire meal. Afterwards, the epergne would remain on the table or be moved to a sidebar, the edibles accessible to the guests as desired.
During the Georgian era the vast majority of epergne were made of silver, and thus quite expensive. The Victorians introduced the glass epergne, which remained a popular table centerpiece choice although smaller in size due to changes in dining style.