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The Georgian Tea Table
Offered by Emily Hendrickson
Author of PURSUING PRISCILLA
We often hear of the Victorian tea. So many believe that simply because late afternoon tea became an institution at that time, that tea with friends or visitors didn't exist prior to Victoria. According to Amanda Vickery in The Gentleman's Daughter this was not the case. She examined the diaries of five women who lived in the Georgian period of England and found a great many interesting facts about the social life at that time, and in particular the ritual of taking tea. One of the women was an enterprising lady named Mrs. Shakleton. Ms. Vickery wrote: "The tea party was one of the most socially inclusive events in Elizabeth Shakleton's social calendar, involving anyone from a Justice of the Peace to the mantua-maker. Tea parties were not in themselves an exclusively female affair. Any impromptu visitor, male or female, might benefit from the basic ceremony with kettle, teapot, china and silver. Although the Shakleton's used 'tea-time' to designate the late afternoon, it appears that hot drinks were drunk at any time of day. It seemed female company were the most likely to be served, however. Mrs. Shackleton lived in the late-eighteenth century and information on her social life is garnered from her diaries for 1773 and 1780. She recorded when and to whom she served tea and what else might be offered.
Tea was routinely served at the mantua-makers and haberdashers establishments while out shopping. The customer might survey the selection of fabrics available whilst sipping a cup of Bohea. "When the mantua-maker came to the house, dresses were fitted, orders and instructions given, finished work received, and trinkets purchased all to the accompaniment of tea." Doesn't that sound like an agreeable way to conduct business! "Ladies offered tea in the parlor to social inferiors in much the same way as gentlemen bought ale in the tavern, to lubricate the process of giving orders and doing business. Tea facilitated the process of exchange." Serving and partaking of tea was an integral part of their life quite contrary to what we may have read elsewhere.
Little girls found tea a means of learning the rituals of sociability--first as a form of play when they had tea parties with their dolls, and later the ceremony of the real thing. At ten, they played at tea, at twelve, the girl had friends come to tea, and by thirteen, she went to drink tea at another's house. How well a girl poured tea was a test of her social accomplishments. This was definitely true in the English Regency period when fond mothers had their daughters display their aptitude at the tea table.
There was a ranking of sorts as to what was served and how. The mantua-maker had tea and perhaps a biscuit or a piece of seed cake on the plainest of china. The tenant's wives were civilly entertained "with wine, coffee, tea, muffins, toast, Punch and great pieces of Iced rich Plumb cake." They would be served on the second best china. The social equal was served with elegant china, the best the hostess had to offer, either Worchester or whatever else she possessed that she cherished. (The porcelain company did not acquire the Royal before its name until 1862.) With teas, as well as dinners and other entertainment, "the gentry reaffirmed their gentility and maintained a wide polite acquaintance." In the country there were card parties, tea parties and at times dances or assemblies. This was their entertainment and they were not slow to invite others to partake of the pleasures to be had.
The country gentry did not aspire to drink tea from the same pattern of china as a duchess, but appear to have been satisfied with good quality ware. At times hot meats, sandwiches as well as the "Plumb" cake and the other tasty tidbits were served, especially if men were to be present. Even coffee was not ignored, offered as well as tea at this time. This is why they might order six teacups and six coffee cups but only six saucers - figuring that if one person drank tea and another coffee, they still required the same total of saucers.
In the city the ladies solemnly sat around the tea urn enjoying their after-dinner brew while the men remained in the dining room, drinking their wines. The ceremonial brewing of the tea took place in the drawing room. A servant would carry in all the tea equipage and any food to be offered - like little cakes or sweets - but would leave the lady or daughter of the house to brew and serve the tea. If the gentlemen joined them at this time the host or one of the men would graciously hand the teacups around. Otherwise a servant might assist. A maid might offer the cakes and biscuits. A little music was generally given after dinner and the guests began to leave about half-past ten.
Jane Pettigrew in her book on The Social History of Tea points out that there was a custom of leaving a spoon either across or inside the cup to show that the drinker did not require a refill.
She lists the teas on offer by 1800 as the following: "Bohea, Bohea Dust, Bohea with Pekoe, Pekoe, Imperial, Bloom & Imperial, Congo, Congo with Pekoe, Congo with Bohea, Green Tea (Hyson), Green Dust, Green & Imperial, Bloom Tea, Finest Hyson. Bohea, Congo and Pekoe were black teas, with Bohea the most common coarse sort, and Congo and Pekoe the better qualities. Hyson was green, while Imperial was a term applied to medium teas. There were also: Caper and Gunpowder, green teas with a small, tightly rolled leaf; Twankey green, Souchong, a large-leafed black tea; Bing, another medium type of tea; and Singlo, the lowest quality of the green teas." In Twining's order books it appears that people seem to have mostly bought the more common black and green teas, Bohea and Hyson. Most teas were sold loose from the chest in quarter, half and one pound quantities. A canister could be purchased if the buyer didn't already own a tea caddy. "Fannings" or "Dusts" are the finest pieces of leaf that are left after the leaf and broken grades have been sorted. Today these are generally used in tea bags. At that time they might have been mixed in with the larger leaves.
An enterprising maid might dry the used tea leaves and sell them, thus getting a shilling a pound for such tea--which had likely been dyed in a solution of Japan earth. Green tea was the easiest to adulterate (with Prussian Blue), so more and more people began to buy only black tea.
Illicit tea was another matter, with smuggling common as people hated to pay the high tax on the imported stuff. The Dutch East Indies tea was landed along the south coast of England. The smuggler divided it up in oilskin bags before loading it on pack horses and carts. An 1810 Rowlandson cartoon depicts a young woman having sacks of tea tied on to her waist that would than be concealed by her gown when she went through customs. Even Parson Woodforde bought smuggled tea.
The Vickery book covers women's lives in Georgian England, and although mostly dealing with the time of George III, it also extends into the early nineteenth century and the time of Prince George, who became regent for his ailing father. The time for serving tea, particularly in London, was from eleven until possibly five, when the time for the walk or drive in the park took place.
Amanda Vickery: The Gentleman's Daughter - Women's Lives in Georgian England. (Yale U Press 1998 ISBN 0-300-08002-6)
Jane Pettigrew: A Social History of Tea (National Trust)
Emily Hendrickson is the author of over 40 novels and novellas set in the Regency period. She has also written and self published THE REGENCY REFERENCE BOOK, described as " absolutely essential for a Regency Writer" by Mary Jo Putney. PURSUING PRISCILLA is a February 2003 Regency romance from Signet.
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