Popular Alabama-based Facebook group keeps tradition alive
By Lenore Vickrey
When I was in college, and some of my classmates were preparing to get married after graduation, the talk often centered around choosing and then registering for the right “pattern.” One for your “good” china and crystal, another for your “everyday.” One for your silver and stainless, and if you were really serious, your table linens. This exercise was usually promoted by mothers and grandmothers eager to ensure that their family tradition continued to the next generation.
If memory serves, the favorites in the 1970s were the colorful Lenox Autumn or its simpler sister, Lenox Eternal, with its demure band of gold encircling the edge of the plates and cup. While I was not heading down the aisle myself, I dutifully bought my share of plates and glasses for my engaged girlfriends. It would be another 10 years before I found myself facing my own such choices.
For members of the popular Beautiful Table Settings Facebook group, however, the world of coordinating patterns of china plates, crystal goblets, linen napkins and silverware is second nature. In fact, it’s addicting.
“I found my tribe,” says Jill Haisten of Montgomery, one of seven members who helps administer the group for Wetumpka resident May Eason, an avid collector of china and glassware who founded the group in September 2019.
Eason, a Wetumpka resident whose 1830s home is a showcase for her collections of vases, pitchers, bowls and Victorian-era containers, was in another similar Facebook group when she decided to start her own. She told her friends about the page, and then those friends invited their friends, and the group began to grow. Membership really took off when the pandemic hit in March 2020.
“When I joined it had less than 1,400 members,” remembers Kathie LeDrew of Foley. During the pandemic, “People weren’t eating out, they were confined to their homes and trying to find something to do.” The Facebook group of members who shared photos of their decked-out dining room and kitchen tables became a source of happiness for people weary of sickness and negativity.
At presstime, Beautiful Table Settings had close to 164,000 members and that figure grows by about 1,000 every week, with people from across the United States and 90 foreign countries. “It’s unreal,” says LeDrew. Geographic boundaries disappear when you’re talking Fostoria cake plates and Battenburg lace.
The premise is simple: Set a table, then post photos of your tablescape so others can see and comment. The page rules are also simple but firm: Be nice with your comments. “We don’t allow anything about politics or religion,” Eason says. “This is about table settings only. My motto is, ‘If you can’t say something nice, keep scrolling.’”
Many posts are seasonal, with members pulling out dishes and tablecloths to celebrate spring, Easter, then summer, fall, football season, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and on it goes.
Creativity and tradition
“It’s a creative outlet,” says Sandy Tatum, 81, of Prattville. “I used to draw and paint, and now I just set tables!” Like many other members, she keeps a table set with china, linens and tableware in her house.
“It’s a southern tradition,” she says. “I had an aunt that loved to set tables like that, and I also learned that if I keep my table set, I won’t pile junk on it.”
To keep things interesting on the page, Eason designates certain days for certain posts. Tuesdays are for members to post something they want to sell; Wednesday is for telling what they’re searching for. Thursdays might be for telling what they’ve learned from BTS or what they like to collect.
“We try to keep it fun,” she says.
The popularity of the page has been so strong that it spawned another related page, Beautiful Table Settings Magazine, in December 2021. Editor Kathy Waldrop, who lives in Centre, was a loyal page member for several months when she came up with the idea of creating an online magazine. She recruited volunteer writers and contributing editors from the site who could write about topics of interest, from the historical to the practical (such as how to properly take photos of your table setting).
On “Magazine Worthy Wednesdays,” people are invited to submit photos in keeping with that month’s themes, such as Easter, spring, gardens or others, for members to vote on.
At month’s end, she tallies up the votes, with the top 16 making it into the magazine and the top vote-getter winning the cover spot.
Why the interest? Waldrop can think of three reasons: “It’s a rarity. People are not accustomed to seeing gorgeous table settings. When a new member sees these tables, they’re astounded. Then they start reading and following the comments. Also, it helps us have more respect for our forefathers, who did this all the time. And there’s the camaraderie! People get to talk to each other about their china. It’s so much fun.”
Friendship and learning
Meeting other members in the group is one aim of the BTS Bash, which was held in March in Wetumpka. The inaugural event last year drew some 500 attendees from all over the country, Eason says, including New York and California. Members this year shopped at 25 different vendor booths and heard tips from experts in table and floral design, including representatives from Replacements Inc., the world’s largest retailer of china, crystal and silverware, experienced a mini-Antiques Roadshow, and heard presentations on linens, accessorizing and napkin folding.
At the first Bash, Eason says people who had only known each other online were so excited to meet in person that they brought each other gifts.
Sandy Tatum has been impressed by how people respond to each other. “What appeals to me is the kindness,” she says. “If somebody says they need something, two or three will send it to them free of charge.”
Kathie LeDrew especially likes the learning aspect of being a part of the Facebook group. “Like placement, where the knife and fork go, where glasses go. I save every chart that’s posted because they’re all a little bit different,” she says. Growing up with five children in her family, they used jelly glasses at their meals, while her mother saved the fancy glasses for entertaining. Today, LeDrew likes to entertain with her items she picks up at estate sales, on eBay and at antique shops, and she keeps a table set for the seasons at her house.
“For people who haven’t been interested in china long enough,” adds Tatum, “it’s a good learning experience.”
“Everybody’s got such different ideas and taste,” notes Haisten. “We learn from each other.”
Eason encourages people to mix and match their china patterns. A white dinner plate provides the perfect frame for a decorative salad plate in another design, for example. “I pick up things I like and I just mix them,” she says. She and her husband enjoy shopping estate sales and thrift shops. “I have over 100 different sets of china, but they’re not all complete.”
The power of a decorated table
“A lot of people keep their table set,” says Eason, even if they’re not planning to eat there. A beautifully set table “looks inviting. You can just enjoy it while you walk by, and it doesn’t cost anything.”
Group member Erin Caden Rogers of Deatsville says she enjoys “dressing” her table because “I feel like it is almost like dressing myself. It reflects my creativity, my mood. I love a theme and I also love the classics.”
She grew up in Sheffield in northwest Alabama in a household where her mother often entertained and “every meal was eaten on a real plate.” At 41, Rogers is among the younger members of BTS, and it saddens her that more young brides apparently aren’t interested in acquiring their own fine china. Even the small-town stores that used to cater to brides seem to be closing, she notes.
A mother of three boys, she uses her table settings “as a way to show love for others. It’s also a way to remember. My sterling is my grandmother’s Strasburg by Gorham, engraved with a B for her maiden name. My boys and I polish silver together, and it’s a way to tell (family) stories and history. My crystal was a gift from my mother-in-law and that’s a special thing.”
Haisten caught the home goods bug from her grandmother who used her silver every day. “I came by it honestly. I never sat at my grandmother’s table without there being china and silver on the table,” she remembers.
Even today, Haisten, who loves to entertain, also takes the time to set a nice table even if it’s just for one person, herself, for dining on her outdoor patio. Like many members, she has her grandmother’s wedding china as well as her own from the early 1970s. “Over time you get tired of it,” she says, and you can always add new pieces and change things up.
Besides, there’s always your Facebook BTS family who needs to see your latest creation. And it works both ways. Online, says Haisten, “I can look and appreciate without having to own it.”