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A Roaring 20's Afternoon Tea

During the holiday season, Agecroft Hall is dressed to impress. While wreaths and garlands abound, a special piece of our collection can be spotted in the Williams Library—the Williams Silver Tea Service. Tea may not be the first beverage that comes to mind when one thinks of parties during the 1920s in America, but the power it wielded shaped American society demonstrably. American tea culture reached its peak during the 1920s and 30s, and it governed social gatherings and enforced a set of rules involving conversation, etiquette, and fashion. As Agecroft Hall was moved to America and rebuilt in 1926, Bessie (Agecroft Hall’s own first lady) certainly would have hosted numerous tea parties over the years, but what would they have looked like?



Figure 1: Artist Unknown. “Mappin and Webb, 1920s France Cc Tea.” The Advertising Archives.


The tradition of afternoon tea originated in early 17th century Paris and quickly became popular among aristocrats and upper-class individuals on the European continent. The custom spread to English nobility through Charles II’s marriage to Catherine of Braganza who brought her love of tea with her from Portugal. By Victorian-era England, tea consumption had become deeply engrained in the homes of all social classes, and thus spawned the need for a number of accessories. For the wealthy, silver tea sets accompanied with porcelain teacups became a major symbol of their social and economic status. Silver was highly desired for its heat conduction, as well as the metal’s lack of reaction with the tea—thus avoiding the creation of odd tastes. An afternoon tea was simply one method of showcasing a luxurious lifestyle. As tea leaves were largely imported from China and India, the drink was somewhat expensive, compounding the association of tea-drinking with the elite. Finally, the trend of consuming tea during the afternoon, accompanied by dress clothes and the required etiquette, implied a certain amount of free time for the individual.


When the new century brought cries for Prohibition in America, tearooms replaced bars as social watering holes for the public. Since afternoon teas were female dominated, they also offered the allure of socialization without the oversight of male relatives. Whether it was a formal tea hosted at a person’s home, or a public tearoom, women were welcome to dine and converse on topics relevant to only them.



Figure 2: Artist Unknown. “Illustration.” Women’s Home Companion. 1926. From the Collection of Julia Henri.


Typically, a Victorian silver tea service consisted of a teapot, hot water urn, sugar bowl with tongs, creamer, service tray, and spoons. Coffeepots and hot chocolate pots could also be added, depending on the desires and status of the owner. Teacups and saucers, made of porcelain were displayed on tables dressed in fine linens and decorated with flowers and candles. Plates of sandwiches, cakes, bonbons, and nuts were arranged along the table—but never allowed to crowd it. An afternoon tea typically served light food, so that one’s appetite for dinner would not be spoiled.



Figure 3: Theo van Rysselberghe. Summer Afternoon Tea (Tea in the Garden). 1901. Oil on Canvas. Private Collection.


It was often the custom that guests would be served by young girls who eagerly sought to claim a seat at the afternoon tea and interact with invited guests. The girls would be instructed to serve guests the tea and any desired foods. Hostesses could also request help from friends (2-4, depending on the size of the party), or simply hire wait staff for the event.

 

Although black tea is more common today, during the 1920s, Orange Pekoe was the most popular variety. Tea bags had only just been invented and most tea drinkers still preferred loose leaves. Interestingly, it was World War II that effectively forced a switch to the black teas that were still available from India and unhampered by blocked shipping routes.

 

What kinds of sandwiches, cakes, and bonbons were beautifully arranged on the afternoon tea table? Household manuals of the time period suggested menus such as, “Kentish Oatcakes, White Bread and Butter, Blackberry Jelly, Cornish Splits, Ginger Biscuits, and Chocolate Cream Cake.” Or even, “Egg and Anchovy Sandwiches, Northumberland Griddle Cakes, Ayrshire Shortbread, Bath Buns, and Marshmallow Layer Cake.” Despite some unusual food suggestions, there seems to be a universal combination of several savory options and at least two sweet treats. While Afternoon tea and High tea are often equated, the key difference between the two is, ultimately, the food. High teas frequently functioned as dinner for working classes and required more filling options--such as Fried Fillets of Haddock. High teas allowed working classes to lower food costs and reduce down time. Higher classes would still plan to consume dinner afterwards, and only needed light snacks.



Figure 4: “Christmas Tea Service at Agecroft Hall & Gardens.”


Interested in learning more? This coming winter, Agecroft Hall & Gardens will have its own silver tea service on display! Come, visit, and see it in person. **

 

 

**Egg and Anchovy Sandwiches not included.

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