The Romans often added decorative foliage to their tables. Other popular centerpieces included vases, other ceramics and dishes of rock crystal.
Aristocratic tables were often too crowded with food in the Middle Ages to leave much room for centerpieces. However, Christmas centerpieces often included pastry and marzipan shaped to look like people, animals and other decorative objects or scenes.
In the 18th century, service à la russe (with servants handing food dishes to the hostess one by one) cleared more room on the table for decorations. Mirrors set up to reflect porcelain figures were a popular choice for aristocrats. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, centerpieces were often vertical in shape. These were often constructed using pyramids of food, food arranged on tiered dishes known as epergnes, or using molded puddings and jellies.
The custom of adding flowers to the table was revived during the early 19th century. By the late 19th century, flowers and foliage on the table often reflected the season or theme of the event, such as white flowers for a snow-themed event. Candelabras were another popular addition.
By WWI, decorative objects began to replace flowers and foliage on the table. These objects were often tied to the theme of the event -- for example, a hostess might add a harp on a green cloth to her St. Patrick's Day table or a miniature windmill for a Dutch-themed event. Later in the century, food came back into style for table centerpieces. During the nature-loving 1960s and 1970s, flowers and grasses returned to the table and never really left.