Afternoon Tea in 1890

Afternoon Tea in 1890

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In the 1890 article by Anna Sawyer in Good Housekeeping, she discusses the charming tradition of afternoon tea, which originated in England but has been adapted in the United States. She highlights the simplicity and elegance of this hospitality practice, which can bridge social interactions. Anna emphasizes that while the American adaptation may differ due to various factors, maintaining simplicity is crucial to retain the charm of afternoon tea. She provides insights into the table setup, tea preparation, and menu options, urging hosts to uphold the spirit of simple yet elegant hospitality while accommodating their means. Anna also notes the importance of proper guest behavior and the optional inclusion of gentlemen in such gatherings, as well as offering guidelines for attire and etiquette.

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Afternoon Tea, an article by Anna Sawyer published in Good Housekeeping in 1890

Some Suggestions and Instructions Regarding The Home Institutions That Represent, More Than Any Other, “A Spirit of Simple Yet Elegant Hospitality.”

Afternoon Tea in England

Of all the customs which we have borrowed from our English friends, none is in itself more charming than that of afternoon tea, and few modes of entertainment are so well suited to all times and seasons and conditions of social life, although we have been obliged somewhat to amplify the simple form of it, to suit a rather different need. Tea is, as we all know, the adored beverage of the British matron’s heart.

The solace which her lord finds in his brandy and soda, she discovers in her cup of tea, at all hours it is welcome, but specially does she enjoy it at five o’clock, when the lull comes, if at all, between the duties and pleasures of the day and those of the evening. There is a long stretch between the two o’clock luncheon and dinner at eight, and the cup of tea, with toasted muffin, is a very acceptable break in the fast.

This is the simple origin of the custom in England, and primarily it does not there represent an entertainment, as we understand the word, but is as much a part of the daily routine of both family and servants as are the other meals. Sometimes substantial dishes are added, and very often there is a variety of light ones. In country-house life the hostess and guests gather around the table at this hour and visitors are to be expected. In London the custom assumes more of the character of our own ” Teas,” but without the formality of an invitation, friends understand this to be a probable time for finding some of the ladies of the family at home.

Adaptations of Afternoon Tea in America

In this country it is hardly possible, except in the large cities, to adhere very closely to the custom in its native form, because of the widely differing conditions of our ordinary social life, but the simplicity we must retain, or with it lose the charm which gives color and individual character to the whole.

The American woman has not as an incentive to adopting five o’clock tea as a daily habit, the innate love, and large capacity for tea itself which her English sister has, besides this, outside of the great cities, the arrangement of hours is such as to make it undesirable, or at least unnecessary, when tea or dinner will follow not later, perhaps, than six. If the length of one’s visiting list warrants the slight effort, a tiny table with the paraphernalia of tea and a plate of dainty biscuits, may aid in bridging pleasantly over the stiffness of a formal call.

It is becoming a common thing for the young society girl to have her tea-table, at which she herself presides, usually quite without the aid of her mother’s presence, which would yet give point and dignity. In small towns, as a custom, this seems an affectation, for the table is likely to be spread for many a day, while the young hostess remains unrewarded by a single visitor, and should one come, she is apt to consider the necessity for partaking a burden. Indeed, I listened, not long since, to the lamentations of a young friend who, in the course of one afternoon’s calls, was obliged to show a proper appreciation of the new ” fad ” by sipping at least a part of six cups of ” instantaneous ” chocolate, which beverage usually supplies the place of tea on these occasions.

Thus from the force of circumstances the custom can hardly become a daily habit with us, but properly suiting it to our purposes, its very name carries with it the spirit of simple yet elegant hospitality, which spirit will be quite lost if it be turned into one of the hybrid receptions so common, and so wrongly called by its name. While there are many other useful and suitable forms of receiving one’s friends, if this be chosen, it can alone be fitting while maintaining its own character.

Afternoon Tea for American Society

To people of small or moderate means, an afternoon Tea offers a solution of a difficult problem. It is inexpensive, enjoyable, and in its simplicity, above criticism, but too often people are asked to one so-called to be greeted by a band of music hidden behind elaborate decorations of hot-house plants. An immense number of people must push and elbow their way into the dining- room if they are to get there at all. They are then served by colored waiters, who dispense not tea alone, but every dainty and substantial dish which could be used at a supper, from a table of which the ornaments and furnishings come, with the waiters, from the caterer. Such large ” At Homes ” or receptions are in some cases necessary, but there is no propriety in describing such as a ” Tea.”

Where one feels one’s house too small to comfortably accommodate the desired number, there are different methods of dividing the list judiciously, and solving the difficulty, by more than one afternoon. This must, of course, be left to individual discretion, but if all cannot be entertained at once, one afternoon a number of young people might be asked with their parents, while a second might be devoted to the older and graver friends who will enjoy occasionally meeting in a real gathering of their contemporaries.

Another good plan is for the hostess to send out her own visiting card, which is, by the way, the only correct invitation to such an affair as this, the card, in addition to the name, bearing the written or engraved words, ” At Home Thursdays in December.” Of course no reply is required to such informal invitations. The latter plan will do away with the danger of a crush, as people will not naturally all select the same day. More people, however, may be expected on the fourth afternoon, as in all such things procrastination is characteristic with many.

But the guest once bidden, let the faith of the hostess in the simple form of her entertainment remain perfect, as it will if she owns the truly hospitable spirit. Let her remember that to ask a friend to break one’s bread is a compliment, and to entertain according to one’s means is always in good taste.

Setting the Stage for Afternoon Tea

Now as to details. Almost every one owns a table which is, or may serve, as the drawing-room tea-table. This should be covered with a cloth, in the selection of which lies a wide choice within the bounds of good taste, pure white damask, well laundered, is always proper, Saxony linen is a very reasonable source of pride to the happy possessor, who will find no occasion better than this for the display of its silky loveliness. There are numberless embroidered cloths, but to be suitable, the work, whether of silk or linen, must be washable.

A tray is not an absolute necessity, but if possible it should be used, and it will protect the linen from the tea-stain so justly dreaded by the good housekeeper. This tray will hold a kettle, or urn, under which is a spirit-lamp, tea-caddy, tea-pot, cream-pitcher, sugar basin and bowl, spoons, cups, saucers, and a plate of sliced lemon. If the arrangement is for a very small number, the table may also hold a few plates and doileys and a plate each of biscuits and cakes. If the tea-service only can be accommodated, another table conveniently near, may do duty.

The lady who presides over the tea-urn has a very dainty office to perform, but if she has a correct understanding of her duties, she will not find her place a sinecure. The hostess cannot perform her task as such, and preside at the tea-table, but she will, if there be no daughter of the house, select some guest under her roof, or an intimate friend, to act for her. It is the duty of this person to see that each cup of tea which she dispenses, is as perfect as it is possible for her to make it, and one of the first requisites of this is heat. The English complain that it is impossible to get a cup of hot tea in America, and yet this difficulty is an easy one to overcome.

The Art of Tea-Making and Serving

But of the method of preparing this piece de resistance, I will speak later. The water boiling, the tea drawn,” a ‘ cozy ” should be pulled over the tea-pot, to keep in the steam, with which would escape much of the aroma. Before pouring, a little boiling water should be left for a few moments in the cup. With these precautions, our transatlantic friends will find no fault, though there may be some truth in the statement I once heard made, that their throats, like a ship’s bottom, are ” coppered. ”

Each guest will find the way to the tea-table, and make her wishes known without waiting to be asked. Here let me say what would hardly appear needful, but for many inquiries which have proved it so. No special introduction to the lady presiding is required. It is not only proper but obligatory that the guest show breeding as well as kindliness, by making, if need be, an effort to enter into conversation with her. The fact of meeting under the roof of a mutual friend, is sufficient introduction. A witty and observing person should fill this place, that she may aid in setting the ball of conversation rolling among those she gathers about her. In the drawing-room even quite young children will prove useful in passing biscuits, tea and plates. The help of a servant will be needed most in quietly replenishing and removing dishes.

If the affair is too large to manage in this easy way, the service may be placed upon the dining-table, but this should not be set as for an evening party. There should be here also an air of graceful informality. The tea-service will, of course, occupy the prominent place, a bowl of flowers and pretty centre cloth may be used, but there should be no elaborate attempt at decoration. The help of a servant is here more necessary, but should be as unobtrusive as possible.

The entertainment of the ” inner man ” may be very limited, or of great variety. Thin bread and butter, tea, olives, preserved ginger, may be served with perfect propriety, while those having the means and will, may build upon these honest foundations. I gave in answer to a correspondent, a series of simple but sufficient menus in GOOD HOUSEKEEPING for February 15, so will not repeat them here. Among more substantial dishes, cold meats and light salads may be used, but ices are neither necessary nor in keeping.

In preparing tea, the water to be used should never be poured directly from the kitchen kettle into the urn. It should be cold, fresh water, brought absolutely to the boiling point. The tea used will, of course, differ according to taste, but none is better for the purpose than the best English breakfast. The leaves must be placed in the pot in the proportion of a heaping teaspoonful to each person. Upon these leaves pour a small quantity of boiling water, never use all of the latter needed at once, as a sudden rush will certainly “drown” the tea.

Now pull the cozy over the tea-pot and allow the contents to draw a few moments, when you will have the best infusion possible, repeat this process as many times as needed, after using the first potful and filling once more with boiling water, the tea loses in strength and flavor. Boiled tea is hurtful and breakfast tea should never be steeped upon the stove. It will not often be necessary to strain where these directions are followed, but the sudden addition of water floats the leaves which do not again settle.

Russian Tea and Other Variations

Russian tea is simply served without cream, and instead, a slice of lemon. For the preparation of this, an old Russian recipe may be acceptable : To one-half pound of tea, add one large lump of sugar, spread the tea upon a board, crush the leaves and sugar with a rolling-pin as finely as possible, mix thoroughly. In making, add the water very gradually. I will say for the benefit of those who dislike sugar, that it cannot be detected. In what lies the virtue I cannot say, but certain it is that tea thus made is delicious.

Russian tea, poured upon finely chopped ice, served in tall thin glasses, set each upon a small glass plate, is acceptable, and dainty for a summer or sea-side ” Tea. ” With it should be served long strips of rusk, or a delicate sandwich, made of chopped and highly seasoned hard-boiled eggs. As in the case of hot tea, a lump or two of sugar should be placed upon each saucer or plate. Loaf or lump sugar alone should be used.

Etiquette, RSVPs, and Dress Code

In closing, I would say that although gentlemen are more rarely able to accept such an invitation, it is more elegant that they should be asked. No formal acceptation or regret is necessary, but each guest will leave a card, if present, in the place designated, and in case of absence the courtesy must be recognized by a card, which may be sent by a friend, or by mail on the day itself. In case four teas are given, the card need not, of course, be sent more than once, if it is impossible to be present at any one of them. The recognition of the invitation by a card is expected from people in mourning.

The costume appropriate for a guest is a handsome walking or visiting dress, while the hostess may wear either a dressy house toilet, or one of the exquisite tea-gowns, the fashion for which we have borrowed with the custom.

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