Welcome to the first installment of Tabletop Throwdown, a series where I’ll be discussing the differences between two pieces of similar tableware, their functions, and much more. Today, I’ll be discussing the differences between charger plates and placemats, and how to decide between the two.
It’s no secret that the world of Scaping By is currently revolving around charger plates. What can I say? They’re relatively cheap, fairly easy to store, and add a lot of pizzazz to my tablescapes; there’s seriously nothing more I can want from a piece of tableware!
All this talk about charger plates got me thinking about how they came to be, and when they “replaced” placemats as the option for protecting your table and tablecloth (though I use “replaced” very loosely here, as you’ll see in a bit). Now that I think about it, growing up my mother never used charger plates and was a very firm believer in the superiority of the placemat.
Let’s Go Back in Time
Charger plates, also known as chop plates, under plates, show plates, or service plates, have been around for quite a while: a quick Google search tells me that charger plates have been in common use since the 19th century, although its history dates back to hundreds of years before then. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for placemats as there’s no definitive date for when they came into use. However, we all know and agree that both serve a similar purpose: to keep your food off of the tablecloth.
Materials, Sizes, and Shapes
While charger plates are exactly as they sound (round, like plates usually are, although there are square and triangular charger plates as well), placemats come in shapes like squares, circles, and the common rectangle. Since both charger plates and placemats are meant to protect the tablecloth from food droppings, they’re always larger than the average plate.
Charger plates are usually around 11-14 inches in diameter, with 13″ being the most standard size. I have seen some as large as 15″, but these are far and few in between. Contrarily, placemats come in so many different sizes (trust me on this one), with the rectangular shapes of 12″x18″ and 14″-20″ being the most common. These large placemats should fit the entire place setting, like in the illustration of a casual tablescape shown below.
While there are much smaller placemats available, they’re really only big enough to hold the dinner plate. Much like the charger plate, with a small placemat the rest of your place setting should be placed on the tablecloth.
Aside from the sizing, there are many different materials of charger plates and placemats to choose from. For charger plates, you can pick from plastic, wood, porcelain, metal, glass, and even marble. Placemats, on the other hand, commonly come in different types of fabric like cotton, linen, canvas, and silk, but also sometimes come in plastic, leather, paper, and wood. Woven materials like jute are also used for both charger plates and placemats, and are especially popular during the warmer seasons.
Some Common Dining Rules
Charger plates are tableware favorites when serving a multiple course meal: each course is placed on the charger plate in food-safe dishes, with the exception of the dessert course. In formal situations, chargers should never be used when serving dessert, and should be taken away after the main course with the plate still on top. In informal situations anything goes, so feel free to keep your chargers on hand until the end of the meal!
The perfect positioning of a charger plate is an inch from the bottom edge of the table, and around 2 feet away from each other to give your guests ample room to eat.
Since placemats are usually larger than charger plates, allow for at least 4 inches in between the mats (and thus, 4 inches in between each place setting). As with chargers, keep the edge of the placemat at least an inch from the bottom edge of your table.
Let’s Throw a Party
Since charger plates are usually reserved for meals with multiple courses, they’re seen as the more “formal” option of the two (but of course, there are exceptions to this rule). Placemats are the more casual option, and would look lovely in a small, intimate dinner served family-style.
So let me answer the question that I bet is on everyone’s mind: can you use both charger plates and placemats together? YES, you most definitely can. But considering both have a similar function on a dining table, I would say that using both at once is a bit of an overkill. Of course, if layering them suits your mood (and your tablescape), then by all means go ahead!
Pros and Cons
Now that we all have a little background on both the charger plate and the placemat, let’s discuss the pros and cons of each to see which one comes out on top of this throwdown.
- Ease of use: Chargers are, hands down, easier to clean. Most charger plates are now dishwasher-friendly, so they make cleaning up a breeze! Placemats, on the other hand, have to be laundered and sometimes even ironed. Talk about a hassle! Of course, you can always do like the tablescape above and layer your chargers over your placemats to help cut down on your laundry time.
- Variety and materials: Charger plates come in many more different materials, so even for the picky ones among us, you just know that there’s a charger plate out there for you. As a bonus, chargers also often come in many different finishes, which look great when coordinated with your flatware.
- Texture: Because of the nature of fabric, placemats can add a lot of texture to your look. Even setting a super simple table is a breeze when you can add a placemat as the focal point. Take a look at the rustic tablescape with the linen placemats above for a great example of how a placemat can transform even the most ordinary of place settings.
- Ambience: Placemats give off a more casual, breezy feel, while charger plates are seen as more upscale and formal. Depending on the atmosphere you’re going for, both have their uses.
- Tabletop balance: If you remember my article on composition, you should know that shapes play a very important role in the harmony of your tablescapes. Due to their angular shape, placemats can disrupt the flow of your table while chargers are more unobtrusive since they tend to follow the shape of the plateware. Of course, you can always look for round placemats if that’s the route you want to go down on.
- Budget: If you’re on a budget, placemats are often than not cheaper than chargers, so if your wallet isn’t feeling quite so full then placemats are a great option to consider. Placemats are also fairly easy to DIY, and making one should be a breeze if you have even the slightest knowledge of how to sew.
- Storage: Because they’re less bulky and heavy, placemats are the easier one to store between the two. That is assuming you don’t exclusively own canvas placemats in the hundreds, which, believe it or not, can get pretty bulky too.
- Protection: Aside from protecting your tablecloth from food, placemats protect your tables without the need of a tablecloth. If your dining table is made out of glass or wood, I suggest using a placemat underneath your place setting—even while using a charger plate—just to prevent scratches on your tabletop.
- Usability: As a fun little bonus, charger plates can be used outside of tablescaping! They make a great tray for candles, knick-knacks, and assorted objets d’art to be displayed on… something that can’t really be said for placemats.
So with all things considered, which would you pick between the two? I’m definitely on Team Charger! I love the glamorous look they give my tablescapes, plus they make my table designs seem more current and up-to-date. Placemats always struck me as old school, maybe because I grew up using them for every meal.
As you can see, both charger plates and placemats have their place in the tablescaping world, and neither is a bad choice. Do you agree with me, or do you have any strong feelings about either? Don’t forget to tell me in the comments below!