Beginning on January 7th, the Tea Table Exhibit will be set up in the Formal Parlor. Mrs. Ralston and Aunt Emilie have invited several of their friends to join them for tea. As always, there is a lot of information you can tell your visitors about the tradition of tea service and calling in the Victorian era. Don’t feel as though you must convey everything included in this Interpretive Notes, feel free to pick and choose from this information and use it while in the parlor.
The center table will be covered with a silver tea service, a plate of cookies, and a bowl or two of fruit. Extra spoons are will be on the center table for the guests to use. Also on the table will be a teacup with the spoon in its saucer and one with the spoon in the cup. The placement of the spoon often indicated whether the guest wanted more tea or not (see information below for details). From the center table, Mrs. Ralston and Aunt Emilie can refill their guests’ cups with ease. Mrs. Ralston has placed a few examples of handwork around the room for her guests to admire. A parasol and gloves laid on the chairs signify the guests.
Background Information on Tea
Hospitality shares what it has. It does not attempt to give what it has not. The finest hospitality is that which welcomes you to the fireside and permits you to look upon the picture of home-life so little disturbed by your coming that you are made to feel yourself a part of the little symphony...
– Agnes Morton, Etiquette: An Answer to the Riddle, When? Where? How? (Philadelphia: Penn Publishing Company, 1894): 58.
A late-nineteenth 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. (Grover: 9-10)
There seem to have been two types of tea – afternoon and evening tea. Afternoon tea was a holdover from the eighteenth 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.” (Grover: 10) 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.” (Grover: 10)
Evening teas were very popular in the late nineteenth 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 eighteenth century predecessors must have done. These affairs often included eighteenth 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 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.
A book called 1,095 Menus, Breakfast, Dinner, and Tea, published c. 1891, listed “A Week of Family Teas for January.” Note the simplicity of these family menus:
Sunday Monday Saturday
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. (Williams: 126) 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.” (Williams: 128) Despite tea's higher price and the criticism it may have drawn, it remained one of the most popular nonalcoholic drinks in the 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.” (Williams: 44)
Background Information on Calling
Calling was a highly ritualized activity in the Victorian Era. Calling was a way to preserve friendships and establish new ones. Etiquette books were full of suggestions on how to leave a card, how to behave if invited to see the mistresses of the house, and how to host a caller at one’s own house. Calling, the Victorians believed, was one way to attain elegance and establish one’s social standing. It was a way for them to demonstrate to themselves and others their manners and good breeding.
The calling card played a major role in the calling ritual. The design of card and typeface chosen said a lot about a woman. Plain white or off-white stock cards engraved with a name in confident type were admired while a card decorated with gaudy monochromatic flowers denoted a woman of lower rank (and taste.) Once calling was established between two individuals of equal rank, the ritual continued until one party either moved away or died. Among those of unequal rank, trading calls could be halted when the higher ranking individual ignored the lower ranking woman. (Ames: 41)
For the most part cards were to be left in person. It was considered poor taste to send a card with a second party or a servant. When paying a call, one would hand a card to the servant who answered the door. The servant would either tell the visitor that the mistress was not at home or, would take the card to the mistress for further instruction. Upon receiving the card, the mistress would either tell the servant to send the person away (a sign that one had fallen out of the mistresses favor), or come down in person to visit with the caller.
When a person was invited to call at a certain time, like tea time, it was considered very rude to refuse. However, if one did have to refuse an invitation a call was required a day or two after the event. A good hostess would make her guests comfortable with engaging conversation and would provide “conversation starters” in the form of books, needlework, or photographs so that her guests might converse with each other on common ground. Again, etiquette books were full of suggestions for proper behavior:
Etiquette for the hostess: You should be dressed at least a half hour before your guests are to arrive. To come in, flushed from a hurried toilette, to meet your first callers, is unbecoming as well as rude….As each visitor arrives, rise, and advance part of the way to meet her….If appropriate, introduce your guests to each other…always introduce the younger one to the elder…It is a good plan, to have books and pictures on the center table, and scattered about your parlors. You must, of course, converse with each caller, but many will remain in the room for a long time, and these trifles are excellent pastime, and serve as subjects for conversation….A well-bred lady, who is receiving several visitors at a time, pays equal attention to all, and attempts, as much as possible, to generalize the conversation, turning to all in succession.
Etiquette for the caller: After you have received an invitation to a party, call within a week or fortnight after the evening, whether you have accepted or declined the invitation…When the servant answers your ring, hand in your card….When the servant announces you, enter the parlor…Greet the hostess and sit down quietly, do not walk about the parlor, examining the ornaments and pictures, it is ill-bred….Never sit gazing curiously around the room when paying a call, as if taking a mental inventory of the furniture. It is excessively rude….instead make polite and agreeable conversation with the hostess and other guests.
For the Victorians, the ritual of calling was an integral part of good society. While we have lost the subtle nuances of the ritual today, the calling card, to some degree, still exists. Business cards are our calling cards and telephones are our calls. The secretary or answering machine is the servant who announces the caller, giving us the opportunity to accept or claim that we are unavailable.
Ames, Kenneth L. Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture. PA: Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1992.
Hartley, Florence. The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness… MA: Boston, J.S. Locke and Company, 1876.
Levenstein, Harvey. Revolution at the Table, the Transformation of the American Diet. NY: Oxford, University Press, 1988.
Wells, Dane. Lecture on Tea given for Victorian Week, at Cape Island Baptist Church, October 11, 1993.
Williams, Susan. Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts, Dining in Victorian America. NY: Pantheon Books, 1985.