Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Etiquette of Teas, High Teas and Calls in the Victorian Era

The Centennial Tea Party, The U.S. Capitol, 1875
AFTER an invitation to a formal breakfast or luncheon, a call is quite as much de rigueur as after a dinner, but is not required after a " tea at five o'clock."

That is a form of entertainment which means to dispense with formal etiquette and to save time. A lady or gentleman who chooses to accept the invitation thus tendered has made his call; he need not make another. Nor need a lady do more than leave her card on the day of the tea; her duties are then over for the season, unless a dinner invitation follows. Dinner invitations demand a speedy call.

But life would be a sorry burden did every five o'clock tea involve a call afterward, as well as the original visit.

Five o'clock teas should be marked by the absence of any other refreshment than tea, thin sandwiches and cake. If even chocolate and nonpareils are added, there is no longer an excuse for calling it a "five o'clock tea." It has become a reception.

The original five o'clock tea arose in England, from the fact that gentlemen and ladies, before they dressed for dinner, met to take the slight refreshment of a cup of tea, and to perhaps indulge in a little chat. Like everything informal, it  became very popular, and came over to America as an English fashion of entertaining. The teakettle, here, however, became a floral decoration, and the five o'clock tea a party.

This has confused people as to the etiquette of leaving a card afterward, but we assure the doubtful, that neither 13 the invited guest required to call again, nor is the lady of the house required to call on those who come to her five o'clock tea. Her card inviting them has entirely served the purpose.

The Victorian Kitchen and Servants
There are entertainments, known as "high teas," which do necessitate a call. These are usually given on Sunday evenings in cities; but at watering-places, or at country places, or in rural cities, they take the place of dinners. They are very pretty entertainments, and great favorites in Philadelphia. It is an opportunity for the hostess to show her beautiful cut-glass, to get out her preserves, to offer her hot rolls, scalloped oysters and delicate fried chicken. Berries and cream, and all sorts of delicate dishes, appear at the high tea, which would be lost at dinner. The hostess sits behind her silver salver and pours the coffee, tea or chocolate herself. It is only fair to say, that this meal is a greater favorite with ladies than with gentlemen, the partridges, mushrooms on toast, pâté de foie gras, and delicately-sliced cold ham, belonging, in the masculine mind, either to breakfast or lunch, and needing wine to wash them down. But young ladies who drink no wine are devoted to high teas. The invitations are always written as to a dinner, as only a limited number can be asked.

In the country these high teas are delightful, and, coming after a long drive or a picnic, with the solid accompaniments of a beefsteak and a baked potato, are very popular. Waffles and hot cakes, honey and maple molasses, all the American dishes, are popular at this meal, which has its prototype in England or on the Continent.

It is doubtful whether the high tea will ever be popular in New York, whereto it conflicts with the custom of seven o'clock dinners. People find them antagonistic to digestion—it is a violent change of living. Tea and coffee taken in the evening keep many people awake, a single little cup of black coffee, which helps digestion, being the only stimulant that most Americans can endure of the " beverages which we infuse."

Frozen coffee (a delicious refreshment), cold birds, meat pies, salads, salmon, various kinds of punch, biscuits, and, perhaps, jellies, ices and Charlotte's standing where the guest can go and help himself.
Some ladies, who give these receptions, choose to have a "buffet " entertainment. Frozen coffee (a delicious refreshment), cold birds, meat pies, salads, salmon, various kinds of punch, biscuits, and, perhaps, jellies, ices and Charlotte's standing where the guest can go and help himself. One or two servants can serve such a table , it is less trouble than the hot oyster style of thing, and even the serving of tea is more onerous. It has the advantage, too, of being scentless; while hot oysters, served in the house, invariably fill the house with odor. Perhaps as elegant a table as is needed is one where iced tea and coffee, cold game and salad, and punch, with pâté de foie gras sandwiches, stand invitingly ready through the three hours' reception.

On very cold days, hot tea and bouillon are, however, eagerly sought for by the shivering ladies who go from house to house.

No formal calls are made in America on Sunday. A gentleman must have a lady's permission to call on that day. In Europe it is very different. The opera is never so fashionable as on Sunday evening; dinners are always given, and Sunday is especially a fete day. But in America, all dinners and teas are informal on that day, and generally confined to the members of one's family.

Now, all books of etiquette have a chapter on "Cards " and card leaving, but no two of them agree. Young men—who, in America, are extremely remiss in social duties—are told in one, that, if they send their cards by post, they have requited the hospitality of the lady who invites them. This is far from being the opinion of the best ladies in society. If a lady has time to invite a gentleman to dinner, and he comes, he should certainly find time, either to call, in person, on her reception day, or on some evening. It is not enough that he should send a card by post. The only person who is excused for sending a card by post is he who is suddenly called on to leave town, or someone who is, by the death of a relative, thrown into mourning.

"While Mr. Tittlebat Titmouse adorns his outer man, the reader gets a glimpse of his inner man, such as it is."

A modern writer on etiquette has the following rather plain talk:

"The properly-trained youth does not annoy those next to whom he sits by fidgeting in his chair, moving his feet, playing with his bread or with the table equipage. Neither does he chew his food with his mouth open, or talk with it in his mouth. His food is not conveyed in too large or in too small quantities to his mouth. He neither holds his head as erect as a ramrod, nor does he bury his face in his plate. He handles his knife and fork properly, and not 'overhand' as a clown would. He removes them from the plate as soon as it is placed before him, and he crosses them, side by side, when he has finished" (Here we differ. The modern youth lets his knife and fork alone, except when he is conveying food to his mouth with them, or should do so), "and not before, as this is a sign which a well-drilled butler observes for returning the plate. He does not leave his coffee or tea spoon in the cup. He avoids using his handkerchief unnecessarily, or disgusting those near him by trumpet-like performances with it. He does not converse in a loud tone, nor indulge in uproarious laughter. If he breaks an article, he is not profuse in apologies, but shows his regret in his face and his manner rather than in words. Tittlebat Titmouse, when he broke a glass dish, assured his hostess that he would replace it with the best in London."

This is good, strong writing, and undoubtedly would have been useful to the Roger Chawbacons of the fifteenth century. But we can hardly suppose that many young men would, in the present day, need these very practical hints. The age is beyond them.

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