Thursday, November 29, 2018

Georgian Etiquette and Tea



A copy of Marie Antoinette’s “trembleuse” for drinking hot chocolate. The wealthy could afford to drink chocolate and have the proper accoutrements for drinking it. – “By about mid-17th century the new beverages were being drunk in England, and by the 1690’s were being sold in New England. At first chocolate was. preferred, but coffee, being somewhat cheaper, soon replaced it and in England gave rise to a number of public places of refreshment known as coffee houses. Coffee was, of course, the primary drink of these establishments, but that tea also was available is indicated by an advertisement that appeared in an English newspaper in 1658.”

In 18th-century America, the pleasant practice of taking tea at home was an established social custom with a recognized code of manners and distinctive furnishings. Pride was taken in a correct and fashionable tea table whose equipage included much more than teapot, cups, and saucers. It was usually the duty of the mistress to make and pour the tea; and it was the duty of the guests to be adept at handling a teacup and saucer and to provide social “chitchat.” Because of the expense and time involved, the tea party was limited to the upper classes; consequently, such an affair was a status symbol. The cocktail party of the 20th century has, perhaps, replaced the tea party of the 18th century as a social custom, reflecting the contrast between the relaxed atmosphere of yesterday with the hurried pace of today.

The Americans “use much tea,” noted the Abbé Robin during his visit to this country in 1781. “The greatest mark of civility and welcome they can show you, is to invite you to drink it with them.” Tea was the social beverage of the 18th century; serving it was a sign of politeness and hospitality, and drinking it was a custom with distinctive manners and specific equipment. Most discussions of the commodity have dealt only with its political, historical, or economic importance; however, in order to understand the place tea holds in this country’s past, it also is important to consider the beverage in terms of the social life and traditions of the Americans. As the Abbé Robin pointed out, not only was tea an important commodity on this side of the Atlantic, but the imbibing of it was an established social practice.

An examination of teatime behavior and a consideration of what utensils were used or thought appropriate for tea drinking are of help in reconstructing and interpreting American history as well as in furnishing and re-creating interiors of the period, thus bringing into clearer focus the picture of daily life in 18th-century America. For these reasons, and because the subject has received little attention, the present study has been undertaken.

Tea had long been known and used in the Orient before it was introduced into Europe in the early part of the 17th century. At about the same time two other new beverages appeared, chocolate from the Americas and coffee from the Near East. The presence of these commodities in European markets is indicative of the vigorous exploration and active trade of that century, which also witnessed the successful settlement of colonies in North America. By about mid-17th century the new beverages were being drunk in England, and by the 1690’s were being sold in New England. At first chocolate was preferred, but coffee, being somewhat cheaper, soon replaced it and in England gave rise to a number of public places of refreshment known as coffee houses. Coffee was, of course, the primary drink of these establishments, but that tea also was available is indicated by an advertisement that appeared in an English newspaper in 1658. One of the earliest advertisements for tea, it announced:


That Excellent, and by all Physitians approved, China Drink, called by the Chineans, Tcha, by other nations Tay alias Tee, is sold at the Sultaness-head, a Cophee-house in Sweetings Rents by The Royal Exchange, London.

For a time tea was esteemed mainly for its curative powers, which explains why it was “by all Physitians approved.” According to an English broadside published in 1660, the numerous contemporary ailments which tea “helpeth” included “the headaches, giddiness, and heaviness.” It was also considered “good for colds, dropsies and scurvies and [it] expelleth infection. It prevents and cures agues, surfeits and fevers.” By the end of the 17th century, however, tea’s medicinal qualities had become secondary to its fashionableness as a unique drink. Tea along with the other exotic and novel imports from the Orient such as fragile porcelains, lustrous silks, and painted wallpapers had captured the European imagination. Though the beverage was served in public pleasure gardens as well as coffee houses during the early 1700’s in England, social tea drinking in the home was gradually coming into favor.  


The coffee houses continued as centers of political, social, and literary influence as well as of commercial life into the first half of the 19th century, for apparently Englishmen preferred to drink their coffee in public rather than private houses and among male rather than mixed company. This was in contrast to tea, which was drunk in the home with breakfast or as a morning beverage and socially at afternoon gatherings of both sexes, as we see in the painting ‘An English Family at Tea’. As tea drinking in the home became fashionable, both host and hostess took pride in a well-appointed tea table, for a teapot of silver or fragile blue-and-white Oriental porcelain with matching cups and saucers and other equipage added prestige as well as elegance to the teatime ritual.

At first the scarcity and expense of the tea, the costly paraphernalia used to serve it, and the leisure considered necessary to consume it, limited the use of this commodity to the upper classes. For these reasons, social tea drinking was, understandably, a prestige custom. One becomes increasingly aware of this when looking at English paintings and prints of the early 18th century, such as Family Group, painted by Gawen Hamilton about 1730. Family members are portrayed in the familiar setting of their own parlor with its paneled walls and comfortable furnishings. Their pet, a small dog, surveys the scene from a resting place on a corner of the carpet. Teatime appears to have just begun, for cups are still being passed around and others on the table await filling from the nearby porcelain teapot. It seems reasonable to assume, since the painting is portraiture, that the family is engaged in an activity which, although familiar, is considered suitable to the group’s social position and worthy of being recorded in oil. That tea drinking was a status symbol also is indicated by the fact that the artist has used the tea ceremony as the theme of the picture and the tea table as the focal point. 

Eighteenth-century pictures and writings are basic source materials for information about Anglo-American tea drinking. A number of the pictures are small-scale group or conversation piece paintings of English origin in which family and friends are assembled at tea, similar to Family Group, and they provide pictorial information on teatime modes and manners. The surroundings in which the partakers of tea are depicted also reveal information about the period and about the gracious living enjoyed in the better homes.Paneled walls and comfortable chairs, handsome chests and decorative curtains, objects of ceramic and silver and glass, all were set down on canvas or paper with painstaking care, and sometimes with a certain amount of artistic license. A careful study of these paintings provides an excellent guide for furnishing and reconstructing period rooms and exhibits, even to the small details such as objects on mantels, tables, and chests, thus further documenting data from newspapers, journals, publications, and writings of the same period.

In America, as in England, tea had a rather limited use as a social beverage during the early 1700’s. Judge Samuel Sewall, the recorder-extraordinary of Boston life at the turn of the 17th century, seems to have mentioned tea only once in his copious diary. In the entry for April 15, 1709, Sewall wrote that he had attended a meeting at the residence of Madam Winthrop where the guests “drunk Ale, Tea, Wine.” At this time ale and wine, in contrast to tea, were fairly common drinks. Since tea and the equipment used to serve it were costly, social tea drinking was restricted to the prosperous and governing classes who could afford the luxury. The portrayal of the rotund silver teapot and other tea-drinking equipment in such an American painting as Susanna Truax, done by an unknown painter in 1730, indicates that in this country as in England not only was the tea ceremony of social importance but also that a certain amount of prestige was associated with the equipage. And, the very fact that an artist was commissioned for a portrait of this young girl is suggestive of a more than ordinary social status of the sitter and activity depicted.


In Susanna Truax, an American painting dates 1730, on a beige, marble-like table top beside Susanna – who wears a dress of red, black, and white stripes– are a fashionable silver teapot and white ceramic cup, saucer and sugar dish. 

English customs were generally imitated in this country, particularly in the urban centers. Of Boston, where he visited in 1740, Joseph Bennett observed that “the ladies here visit, drink tea and indulge every little piece of gentility to the height of the mode and neglect the affairs of their families with as good grace as the finest ladies in London.” English modes and manners remained a part of the social behavior after the colonies became an independent nation. Visitors to the newly formed United States were apt to remark about such habits as tea drinking, as did Brissot de Warville in 1788, that “in this, as in their whole manner of living, the Americans in general resemble the English.” Therefore, it is not surprising to find that during the 18th century the serving of tea privately in the morning and socially in the afternoon or early evening was an established custom in many households. 

The naturalist Peter Kalm, during his visit to North America in the mid-18th century, noted that tea was a breakfast beverage in both Pennsylvania and New York. From the predominantly Dutch town of Albany in 1749 he wrote that “their breakfast is tea, commonly without milk.” At another time, Kalm stated: With the tea was eaten bread and butter or buttered bread toasted over the coals so that the butter penetrated the whole slice of bread. In the afternoon about three o’clock tea was drunk again in the same fashion, except that bread and butter was not served with it. This tea-drinking schedule was followed throughout the colonies. In Boston the people “take a great deal of tea in the morning,” have dinner at two o’clock, and “about five o’clock they take more tea, some wine, madeira [and] punch," reported the Baron Cromot du Bourg during his visit in 1781. The Marquis de Chastellux confirms his countryman’s statement about teatime, mentioning that the Americans take “tea and punch in the afternoon.”

During the first half of the 18th century the limited amount of tea available at prohibitively high prices restricted its use to a proportionately small segment of the total population of the colonies. About mid-century, however, tea was beginning to be drunk by more and more people, as supplies increased and costs decreased, due in part to the propaganda and merchandising efforts of the East India Company. According to Peter Kalm, tea, chocolate, and coffee had been “wholly unknown” to the Swedish population of Pennsylvania and the surrounding area before the English arrived, but in 1748 these beverages “at present constitute even the country people’s daily breakfast.” A similar observation was made a few years later by Israel Acrelius: Tea, coffee, and chocolate are so general as to be found in the most remote cabins, if not for daily use, yet for visitors, mixed with Muscovado, or raw sugar. America was becoming a country of tea drinkers. Then, in 1767, the Townshend Act imposed a duty  on tea, among other imported commodities. Merchants and citizens in opposition to the act urged a boycott of the taxed articles. A Virginia woman, in a letter to friends in England, wrote in 1769: ... I have given up the Article of Tea, but some are not quite so tractable; however if wee can convince the good folks on your side the Water of their Error, wee may hope to see happier times.

In spite of the tax many colonists continued to indulge in tea drinking. By 1773 the general public, according to one Philadelphia merchant, “can afford to come at this piece of luxury” while one-third of the population “at a moderate computation, drink tea twice a day.” It was at this time, however, that efforts were made to enforce the English tea tax and the result was that most famous of tea parties, the “Boston Tea Party.” Thereafter, an increasing number of colonists abstained from tea drinking as a patriotic gesture. Philip Fithian, a tutor at Nomini Hall, the Virginia plantation of Col. Robert Carter, wrote in his journal on Sunday, May 29, 1774: After dinner we had a Grand & agreeable Walk in & through the Gardens—There is great plenty of Strawberries, some Cherries, Goose berries &c.—Drank Coffee at four, they are now too patriotic to use tea. And indeed they were patriotic, for by September the taste of tea almost had been forgotten at Nomini Hall, as Fithian vividly recounted in his journal: Something in our palace this Evening, very merry happened—Mrs. Carter made a dish of Tea. At Coffee, she sent me a dish—& the Colonel both ignorant—He smelt, sipt—look’d—At last with great gravity he asks what’s this?—Do you ask Sir—Poh!—And out he throws it splash a sacrifice to Vulcan. Other colonists, in their own way, also showed their distaste for tea. Shortly before the outbreak of the American Revolution there appeared in several newspapers an expression of renouncement in rhyme, “A Lady’s Adieu to Her Tea-Table” (below), which provides a picture of contemporary teatime etiquette and equipage.

A Lady’s Adieu to Her Tea-Table


FAREWELL the Tea-board with your gaudy attire, 
Ye cups and ye saucers that I did admire; 
To my cream pot and tongs I now bid adieu; 
That pleasure’s all fled that I once found in you. 
Farewell pretty chest that so lately did shine, 
With hyson and congo and best double fine; 
Many a sweet moment by you I have sat, 
Hearing girls and old maids to tattle and chat; 
And the spruce coxcomb laugh at nothing at all, 
Only some silly work that might happen to fall. 
No more shall my teapot so generous be 
In filling the cups with this pernicious tea, 
For I’ll fill it with water and drink out the same, 
Before I’ll lose LIBERTY that dearest name, Because I am taught (and believe it is fact) That our ruin is aimed at in the late act, 
Of imposing a duty on all foreign Teas, 
Which detestable stuff we can quit when we please. 
LIBERTY’S The Goddess that I do adore, 
And I’ll maintain her right until my last hour, Before she shall part I will die in the cause, For I’ll never be govern’d by tyranny’s laws.


From "Tea Drining in America: Its Etiquette and Equipage" 

By Rodris Roth
Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette 

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