A History of Brunch or What Time IS Dinner?

The 1972 supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary says the word "brunch" first appeared in the British magazine, Hunter's Weekly in 1895. This is confirmed by the Aug. 1, 1896, issue of the magazine Punch: ''To be fashionable nowadays we must 'brunch'. Truly an excellent portmanteau word, introduced, by the way, last year, by Mr. Guy Beringer, in Hunter's Weekly, and indicating a combined breakfast and lunch.''

Although the meal itself became a star in the United States during the 1930s, the word is a British invention, coined in 1895 by Mr. Beringer, an early visionary foodie. He wrote "Brunch: A Plea." Instead of England's early Sunday dinner, a post church ordeal of heavy meats and savory pies, Beringer wrote, why not a new meal, served around noon, that starts with tea or coffee, marmalade and other breakfast fixtures before moving along to the heavier fare? By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday-night carousers. It would promote human happiness in other ways as well. "Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting," Beringer wrote. "It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.""

More than a century later, Beringer's advocacy for brunch remains as compelling as the day he made it, perhaps because, in drafting his brunch manifesto, he was not too specific about what dishes should be served. He demanded ''everything good, plenty of it, variety and selection.'' In a postscript, he suggested that beer and whiskey could be served instead of coffee and tea, laying down a precedent for the mimosa, the Bloody Mary and the screwdriver.

Perhaps the best way to approach the history of brunch is a reflection on "What time is Dinner?" I grew up in central Illinois, my relatives were farmers. When we spoke of dinner we meant the meal at noon. Supper was eaten in the evening. During my university years, I cooked a Thanksgiving Dinner for co-workers in the laboratory for which I washed dishes. I was quite shocked when no one showed up until the evening. I had not been specific about the time. I just knew they would show up around noon. Most of my friends were from Chicago. Dinner meant 7:00 pm. What caused this miss-communication?

Class distinction, local customs and from where or when our respective ancestors immigrated to America were to blame (my not stating plainly the TIME withstanding). I didn't think it was strange to have a large meal in the middle of the day because our family came from a long line of farmers who immigrated from England, Ireland, and Wales generations before. They got up early, ate a fortifying breakfast at sunrise, worked the fields, came home to a large and hearty dinner that my aunts spent the entire morning preparing then returned to work until sundown when they might enjoy a light meal of leftovers from dinner or a bowl of soup or stew made from the aforementioned remains. The women folk, as my aunts referred to themselves, spent the afternoons working the gardens or canning or sewing. They didn't have time to prepare a large meal again in the evening and it was wasteful to throw away leftovers. Leftovers were best eaten the day they were created. This was an old English way of eating based on sunrise and set, and the requirements placed upon my aunts by their station in life. In my young life, dinner was ALWAYS at NOON. I didn't know people ate a different way until my guests failed to arrive when I expected them.

We, in the United States, rarely eat a large meal at high noon. We have become a fast food nation impoverished by lack of time. Today we take the light switch for granted. Back in the day, artificial lighting, oil lamps and candles were an extravagance. Everyone went to sleep at sundown except the extremely wealthy who could afford candle wax. So supper, the third and last meal of the day, was usually eaten before the sun went down, or very shortly afterward. People generally went to sleep soon after eating it, plus it was considered unhealthy to sleep on a full stomach. That was the standard schedule for centuries.

There were some exceptions, of course. People at the wealthiest courts might stay up after dark. They controlled most of the world's capital and used it for things like indulgent parties, clothing, castles, armies, and candles. They were used to the world revolving around them, rather than the other way around. They didn't use the self important names such as "Sun King" or "Swan King" without reason.
The Mirrored gallery at Herrin Chiemsee built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria 1878
Fifty two candelabras of gold and fifty two chandeliers provide support for 2500 wax candles.

From the Middle Ages to the age of Shakespeare, there are scattered references to occasional extra meals, called luncheon and nuntion or nuncheon.
Oh rats, rejoice! The world is grown to one vast drysaltery! So munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon, Breakfast, supper, dinner, luncheon! Browning, Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Nuntion was eaten between dinner and supper, and peasants were sometimes guaranteed nuntions of ale and bread on those days they worked harvesting the fields in the lengthy days of late summer and autumn, when sunset and supper came many hours after noon and dinner. Luncheon seems to have been eaten between breakfast and dinner, when dinner was delayed. Luncheon was taken mainly by ladies and was not a large meal. It was more of a snack on those days when they had to wait for a late dinner due to the political or sporting affairs of their husbands. These late dinners became more and more common in the 1700s, due to new developments in culture and technology.

Capitalism, colonialism, and the industrial revolution were changing the British economy, many people had a lot more money to spend on things like light and food. The nobility and gentry became a class of leisure and began to spend more time in the cities where they had parties and entertainment night after night. They had, or at least most of them had, no more real work to do so they partied or socialized...they became socialites.

The middle class evolved at the same time, due to growth in mercantilism, trade, crafts and manufacturing. Rising wages led to more purchasing of goods, and the cycle revolved. I sometimes wonder if that cycle is turning in reverse today as real wages drop while manufacturing in both England and the United States has virtually ceased, and agriculture is industrialized. Our middle class is disappearing. Our agrarian class is gone.

Anyway, people then began to have more money, and in the cities at least, more goods were available, including candles and lamps. People began staying up later using better lighting, naturally there were things to do at night. The 1700s were a time of entertainment as well as enlightenment. Theaters and operas were suddenly available on a wider scale in cities like London and Paris, with most performances at night. In Shakespeare's time they had usually been in the day, in sunlight. Now they were in enclosed halls, illuminated by hundreds or thousands of candles and lamps.

The Municipal Theater in Bologana, Italy 1756

These were not just affairs for the upper class, either; middle and lower class people went in large numbers.

Today the middle class and lower classes stay at home, isolated in front of the TV eating industrially prepared, instantly reconstituted foods. Communal entertainment and eating is on the wane. Our Theaters are closed or closing.On occasion Americans go out to sporting events where they eat fast food, or to fast food restaurants where they watch more TV. As the middle class disappears, the concern for quality is replaced by cost.

As I pointed out earlier, with more artificial lighting, people in the cities began going to bed later and rising later in the morning. The clock and habits shifted forward. When you ate was relative to when you got up. In London, by the 1730s and 40s, the upper class nobles and gentry were dining at three or four in the afternoon, and by 1770 their dinner hour in London was four or five. In the 1790s the upper class was rising from bed around ten a.m. or noon, and then eating breakfast at an hour when their grandparents had eaten dinner. They then went for "morning walks" in the afternoon and greeted each other with "Good morning" until they ate their dinner at perhaps five or six p.m. Then it was "afternoon" until evening came with supper, sometime between nine p.m. and two a.m.! The rich, famous and fashionable did not go to bed until dawn. With their wealth and social standing, they were able to change the day to suit themselves.

Some upper-class individuals did get up earlier, children for instance and sometimes their mothers. By 1800 the dinner hour had been moved to six or seven. For early risers this meant a very long wait until dinner. Even those who arose at ten a.m. or noon had a wait of anywhere from six to nine hours. Ladies, tired of the wait, had established luncheon as a regular meal, not an occasional one, by about 1810. It was a light meal, of dainty sandwiches and cakes, held at noon or one or even later, but always between breakfast and dinner. Women, being domestic goddesses and inventors, lead the way with tea, biscuits and pastries as a refreshment to serve visitors during the long afternoons. Then ladies began taking tea and snacks of light sandwiches and cakes around four or five in the afternoon, regardless of whether or not they had visitors. At first they had this snack in relative seclusion but by the 1840s they had established afternoon tea as a regular meal in drawing rooms and parlors all over Britain.

All these changes occurred first in London and took years to affect even the upper classes in the country. The further away from London one went, the greater difference there was in meal times. The rural populace, however, long persisted in eating dinner at midday and supper in early evening. The middle and lower classes in Britain were quick to adopt this new meal when they could. Tea came to fill the same role that had once been met by lunch, filling in long hours before a late dinner. But tea never caught on in the US. The industrial revolution started later in the United States than Britain. In the United States there were vast fields which called out to new immigrants to be farmed. Most Americans lived on those farms until World War II. This is why many of the older customs of eating persisted in the US, to the confusion of many, including myself.

The Industrial revolution in Britain during the 1700s and 1800s had completely changed life. People began to work further from home, and the midday meal had to become something light, just whatever they could carry to work.
A 19th Century lunch pail.

The main meal was still dinner, pushed to the evening hours after work, when they could get home for a full meal under the gas lights. People in the middle and lower class began to eat dinner in the evening like the kings and queens. But they did so due to the demands of their lifestyle which was much different from royalty. However, many of them retained the traditional dinner hour of noon or one on Sundays or Holidays, when they were home from work and had time to prepare the large meal of the day and because tradition persists when there is no pressing reason to change.

Luncheon as a regular daily meal developed later in the United States, by the 1900s. In the 1945 edition of Etiquette, Emily Post still referred to luncheon as "generally given by and for women, but it is not unusual, especially in summer places or in town on Saturday or Sunday, to include an equal number of men." She also referred to supper as "the most intimate meal there is...none but family or nearest friends are ever included." Only hash or cold meat were to be served at supper (left overs from dinner, no doubt); anything hot or complicated was served at dinner. In her first edition of Etiquette, in 1922, Post had seen no need to explain that. But by the 1945 edition, she had to explain that luncheon was an informal midday meal and supper an informal evening meal, while dinner was always formal, but could occur at midday or evening.

Later editions, such as the 1960 edition edited by Elizabeth Post, standardized the times and dropped all the old traditions of formality. Lunch was formal or informal, but always at midday, and everyone ate it whether male or female. Dinner was formal or informal, but always in the evening. Supper was an optional meal, thrown in during late night balls. Timing had become more important than ritual; ritual became an optional and personal choice. So much for the Etiquette mistresses. Most people rely upon a hodgepodge of ancestral traditions mitigated by newer customs which evolved in response to modern life to decide how and when to eat.

In our current century, we eat dinner any time from noon to midnight, and most people never have a supper. Like so many old rituals, once followed with iron-clad discipline, our meal times are now as fluid and changeable as the rest of our lives. Customs that persisted for centuries have disappeared in a few decades while new ones such as brunch take their place.