A late-19th century tea, whether served for one’s own family or for guests, was the epitome of tradition and hospitality. It was a chance to gather for some restful moments with one’s spouse and children, or it was an opportunity for refined social interaction with friends. Tea fare ranged from thin sandwiches and cakes to whole meals, and always included tea, coffee or cocoa.
“Tea” in the Victorian era could mean either a simple drink, or a whole meal. Tea was an important beverage at two different family meals, breakfast and “tea.” At breakfast, tea was served and drunk without the ritual that was typical of the latter event. In the morning, tea was probably served in a ceramic teapot, while afternoon or evening tea required the use of the silver or silver-plated teapot.
There seems to have been two types of tea – afternoon and evening tea. Afternoon tea was a holdover from the 18th century tradition of taking tea around four o’clock, and was specifically a female event, although the men might have joined the gathering at the end of their workday. Some families expanded afternoon tea into an entire meal, referred to as high tea or six o’clock supper. This served as their final meal of the day. For others, it was a small light meal that filled the gap between dinner (served at noon) and a late supper at eight or nine o’clock.
The Cosmopolitan Cook and Recipe Book of 1888 stated that afternoon tea time was supposed to be “charming, when contrasted with the anxieties, formality and etiquette of the dinner table.” A hostess might issue invitations to half a dozen friends and stipulate a two hour time slot for afternoon tea. Etiquette books advised guests to stay no longer than 30-45 minutes, and converse with the other guests in a “chatty, agreeable way.”
Evening teas were very popular in the late 19th century. Many fashionable Victorians hosted evening tea parties, which sometimes included supper as part of the party. The American Centennial Celebration (1875-1877) had a great effect on American tea-drinking habits. Americans loved to reenact “old-fashioned” tea parties as they imagined their 18th century predecessors must have done. These affairs often included 18th century costume to complete the “historic” atmosphere.
Teas served for one’s own family were considerably less elaborate. However, considering that the Victorians’ kitchens may have produced four meals a day (breakfast, dinner, tea and supper), it is no wonder larger households needed domestic help. In 1874, Catherine Beecher described the rather simple manner in which to set up a table for a family tea:
In setting a tea table, small-sized plates are set around, with a knife, napkin and butter-plate laid by each in a regular manner; while the articles of food are to be set, also, in regular order. On the waiter are placed tea cups and saucers, sugar bowl, slop-bowl, cream cup and two or three articles for tea, coffee, and hot water, as the case may be.
The ritual of serving tea seemed to be a symbol of genteel living and an upper class lifestyle. Perhaps this is because tea was fairly expensive throughout the 19th century. In 1820, a cup of tea was more expensive than a mixed drink of whiskey and water. Most teas and tea wares were imported from England and were subject to import taxes throughout the Victorian era. However, almost everyone, even many children, drank both tea and coffee.
In the late 19th century, proponents of the Temperance Movement not only spoke out against alcohol, but against tea and coffee as well, because of the stimulating effect those drinks had on one’s nerves. In her 1896 cookbook, Fannie Farmer wrote about black tea that, “when taken to excess, it so acts on the nervous system as to produce sleeplessness and insomnia, and finally makes a complete wreck of its victim.” Despite tea’s higher price and the criticism it may have drawn, it remained one of the most popular nonalcoholic drinks in the late 19th century.
The rituals surrounding tea drinking in the Victorian era had migrated with the tea from China, where there was a long-standing tradition of formal tea serving procedures. Some American tea drinkers subscribed to “established signals to indicate whether they wished to continue to partake.” In 1883, John Ruth wrote in his Decorum: A Practical Treatise on Etiquette and Dress of the Best American Society, “If a person wishes to be served with more tea…or coffee, he should place his spoon in the saucer. If he has had sufficient, let it remain in the cup.”
Treat yourself and your friends to a Classic Tea Luncheon or an afternoon tea at the Carriage House Café & Tearoom at the Physick Estate this summer. It’s every bit as delightful and tasty as its 19th century predecessors, but much more casual…no formal attire required!