Toasts and the Toastmaster
The Traditional British Master of Ceremonies
(by Jenny Parkes)
Throughout Britain’s history,toasting has been an important social custom,especially for Vikings and Ancient Romans. The word ‘toast’is from an Ancient Roman word ‘tostus’ meaning ‘baked dry’ and from the custom of the toaster placing a dry piece of bread into the drink and eating it as part of the toasting ceremony. The custom carried on through to the Middle Ages when the bread became spiced to help improve the flavour of wine.‘Toast’ is mentioned in Shakespeare ’s Merry Wives of Windsor'– Falstaff: "Go fetch me a quart of sack: put a toast in’t”. By King Charles II’s reign the spiced toast was also being put into tankards of beer. One story of that time is a celebrated beauty was bathing at the Cross Bath (in the city of Bath). An admirer is said to have drunk fellow-guests’ health with a glass of bath water, whilst another admirer (slightly inebriated) said he would jump into the water for ‘although he liked not the liquor, he would have the toast’, meaning of course the lady herself.
Toasting formalities were part of high society’s strict etiquette, as mentioned in banquet details held in the Pump Room of Bath in 1649, and in Congreve’s play ‘Way of the World’ in 1700:“That on no account you encroach on the men’s prerogative, and presume to drink Health or Toast Fellows”.
Guilds, Livery Companies and trade associations, from about 1200AD, carried many old customs through the ages –including a communal punch bowl mixed (with a slice of toast of course) by a person of high standing, eg a senior soldier. This was a position of honour and during the 1700s many important households and guilds appointed their own ‘toastmaster’. (‘Stirrup Cup’ and ‘Loving Cup’ traditions continue to this day within the City of London.)
The red-coated toastmaster is a unique British tradition. The story of the red coat is that, about 1750, the Earl of Derby (who started the famous horserace) had his butler wear the Earl’s own Hunting Pink (red riding coat) to impress guests. Some toastmasters wore the 1700s silk knee-breeches and stockings until Edwardian times, but famous toastmaster William Knightsmith popularised the red tail coat around 1895 (his portrait hung in the Café de Paris till the 1980s.) Victorian full evening dress set the style for today (red tailed coat, white bow tie, wing collar, white starched waistcoat, black trousers), though the previous uniform of a black tail coat with sash is still worn within the City of London.
The Toastmaster developed into a personality during the Victorian age, and Livery Companies and Guilds in the City of London continued to engage their own toastmasters. Writers Dickens and Thackeray both mention a Mr James Toole Toastmaster for the East India Company. Other mentions of toastmasters include:
- the Museum of London has a thick-walled toastmaster’s glass of 1731 which holds a minute amount of wine but looks full (maybe to help the toastmaster remain sober when proposing toasts?);
- the British Library contains several books for toastmasters, the earliest being published in 1791;
- Archival images show a picture of a ‘City Toastmaster’ with a top hat and a megaphone controlling crowds at the 1908 Olympic Games in London.
Toastmaster’s duties constantly evolve – from major domo or ‘guardian of etiquette’ in the 1700s (for example Beau Nash in Bath) to MC for big band dancing in the 1940s. Today’s toastmaster is a modern master of ceremonies, often in a business suit, but the red coat distinguishes the professional MC
©Jenny Parkes (2004)