Manners and social usages,
CHAPTER XXVIII.AFTERNOON TEA.
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The five-o’clock tea began in England, and is continued there, as a needed refreshment after a day’s hunting, driving, or out-of-door exercise, before dressing for dinner–that very late dinner of English fashion. It is believed that the Princess of Wales set the fashion by receiving in her boudoir at some countryhouse in a very becoming “tea gown,” which every lady knows to be the most luxurious change from the tight riding-habit or carriage-dress. Her friends came in, by her gracious invitation, to her sanctum, between five and seven, to take a cup of tea with her. The London belles were glad to have an excuse for a new entertainment, and gradually it grew to be a fashion, at which people talked so fast and so loud as to suggest the noise of a drum–a kettledrum, the most rattling of all drums. Then it was remembered that an old-fashioned entertainment was called a drum, and the tea suggested kettle, and the name fitted the circumstances. In England, where economy is so much the fashion, it was finally pronounced an excellent excuse for the suppression of expense, and it came over to New York during a calamitous period, just after “Black Friday.” Ladies were glad to assemble their friends at an hour convenient for their servants, and
with an entertainment inexpensive to their husbands. So a kettledrum became the most fashionable of entertainments. People after a while forgot its origin, and gave a splendid ball by daylight, with every luxury of the season, and called it tea at five o’clock, or else paid off all their social obligations by one sweeping “tea,” which cost them nothing but the lighting of the gas and the hiring of an additional waiter. They became so popular that they defeated themselves, and ladies had to encompass five, six, sometimes nine teas of an afternoon, and the whole of a cold Saturday–the favorite day for teas–was spent in a carriage trying to accomplish the impossible.
The only “afternoon tea” that should prevail in a large city like New York is that given by one or two ladies who are usually “at home” at five o’clock every afternoon. If there is a well-known house where the hostess has the firmness and the hospitality to be always seated in front of her blazing urn at that hour, she is sure of a crowd of gentlemen visitors, who come from down-town glad of a cup of tea and a chat and rest between work and dinner. The sight of a pretty girl making tea is always dear to the masculine heart. Many of our young lawyers, brokers, and gay men of the hunt like a cup of hot tea at five o’clock. The mistake was in the perversion of the idea, the making it the occasion for the official presentation of a daughter, or the excuse for other and more elaborate entertainments. So, although many a house is opened this winter at the same convenient hour, and with perhaps only the bouillon and tea-kettle and bit of cake or sandwich (for really no one wants more refreshment
than this before dinner and after luncheon), the name of these afternoon entertainments has been by mutual consent dropped, and we no longer see the word “kettledrum” or “afternoon tea” on a card, but simply the date and the hour.
There is a great deal to be said in this matter on both sides. The primal idea was a good one. To have a gathering of people without the universal oyster was at first a great relief. The people who had not money for grand “spreads” were enabled to show to their more Opulent neighbors that they too had the spirit of hospitality. All who have spent a winter in Rome remember the frugal entertainment offered, so that an artist with no plentiful purse could still ask a prince to visit him. It became the reproach of Americans that they alone were ashamed to be poor, and that, unless they could offer an expensive supper, dinner, or luncheon, they could not ask their friends to come to see them. Then, again, the doctors, it was urged, had discovered that tea was the best stimulant for the athlete and for the brain-worker. English “breakfast tea” kept nobody awake, and was the most delightful of appetizers. The cup of tea and a sandwich taken at five o’clock spoiled no one’s dinner. The ladies of the house began these entertainments, modestly receiving in plain but pretty dresses; their guests were asked to come in walking-dress. But soon the other side of the story began to tell. A lady going in velvet and furs into a heated room, where gas added its discomfort to the subterranean fires of a furnace, drank tier hot cup of tea, and came out to take a dreadful cold. Her walking dress was manifestly
a dress inappropriate to a kettledrum. Then the hostess and the guests both became more dressy, the afternoon tea lost its primitive character and became a gay reception. Then, again, the nerves! The doctors condemn even the afternoon cup of tea, and declare that it is the foundation of much of the nervous prostration, the sleeplessness, and the nameless misery of our overexcited and careworn oxygen driven people. We are overworked, no doubt. We are an overcivilized set, particularly in the large cities, and every one must decide for himself or herself if “tea” is not an insidious enemy. That the introduction of an informal and healthful and inexpensive way of entertaining is a grand desideratum no one can fail to observe and allow. But with the growth of an idea the tea blossomed into a supper, and the little knot into a crowd, and of course the name became a misnomer.
The ideal entertainment would seem to be a gathering between four and seven, which is thoroughly understood to be a large gas-lighted party, which a lady enters properly dressed for a hot room, having a cloak which she can throw off in the hall, and where she can make her call long or short, as she pleases, and can find a cup of hot bouillon if she is cold, or tea if she prefers it, or a more elaborate lunch if her hostess pleases; and this ideal entertainment is not afternoon tea; it is a reception. It is well enough indicated by the date on the card, and does not need a name.
The abuse of the “afternoon tea” was that it took the place of other entertainments. It has almost ruined the early evening party, which was so pleasant a
feature of the past. People who could well afford to give breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and balls, where men and women could meet each other, and talk, and know each other well, did not give them; they gave an afternoon tea.
It may be because we have no “leisure class” that we do not give breakfasts. In all our Anglomania it is strange that we have not copied that plain, informal thing, an English breakfast, such as Sydney Smith was wont to give. Mr. Webster writes home in 1839: “In England the rule of politeness is to be quiet, act naturally, take no airs, and make no bustle. This perfect politeness has cost a great deal of drill.” He delighted in the English breakfasts, where he met “Boz,” Tom Moore, Wordsworth, Rogers (who never gave any entertainment but breakfasts). We are all workers in America, yet we might have an occasional breakfast-party. Dinners and ladies’ lunches we know very well how to give, and there are plenty of them. Perhaps the only objection to them is their oversumptuousness. The ideal dinners of the past at Washington, with the old Virginia hospitality, the oysters, terrapin, wild turkeys, venison, served by negro cooks and waiters, the hostess keeping the idea of agreeability before her, instead of caring principally for her china, her glass, and her table-cloth. These gave way long ago in New York to the greater luxury of the prosperous city, and if there was any loss, it was in the conversation. New York women have been forced into a life of overdressing, dancing, visiting, shopping, gaining the accomplishments, and showing them off, and leading the life of society at its height; the men
have been overwhelmingly engaged in commerce, and later in Wall Street. No wonder that four o’clock was an hour at which both paused, and called for a “cup of tea.”
Nor because the name has passed away-temporarily, perhaps–will the fashion pass. People will still gather around the steaming urn. Young ladies find it a very pretty recreation to make the tea-table attractive with the floral arrangements, the basket of cake, the sandwiches, the silver tea-caddy, the alcohol lamp burning under the silver or copper kettle, the padded “cozy” to keep the tea warm, the long table around which young gentlemen and young ladies can sit, while mamma patient American mamma–receives the elder people in the parlor.
It is no longer the elderly lady who presides at the tea-kettle; the tabbies do not make or drink the teas; the younger pussies are the queens of four-o’clock tea. It is whispered that it is a convenient alias for flirtation, or something even sweeter–that many engagements have been made at “four-o’clock teas.”
Certainly it is a very good opportunity for showing one’s tea-cups. The handsome china can be displayed at a four-o’clock tea, if it is not too large, to the best advantage. The very early assumption of a grand social entertainment under the name of “four-o’clock tea” rather blotted out one of the prettiest features of the English tea, that of the graceful garment the tea gown.
Tea gowns in France, under the régime of Worth, have become most luxurious garments. They are made of silk, satin, velvet, and lined with delicate
surah. They are trimmed with real and imitation lace, and are of the most delicate shades of pink, blue, lavender, and pearl-color; cascades of lace extend down the front. In these, made loose to the figure, but still very elegant and most becoming, do the English princess, the duchess, and the Continental coroneted or royal dame, or the queen of fashion, receive their guests at afternoon tea. No wonder that in each bridal trousseau do we read of the wonderful “tea gowns.” In America ladies have been in the habit of always receiving in the tight-fitting and elegant combinations of silk, surah, brocade, velvet, and cashmere which fill the wardrobe of modern fashion. The dresses of delicate cashmere, so becoming to young girls, are always very much patronized for afternoon tea. Indeed, the young lady dressed for afternoon tea was dressed for dinner. In this, as our American afternoon teas have been managed, the American young lady was right, for it is not convenable, according to European ideas, to wear a loose flowing robe of the tea-gown pattern out of one’s bedroom or boudoir. It has been done by ignorant people at a watering-place, but it never looks well. It is really an undress, although lace and satin may be used in its composition. A plain, high, and tight-fitting géarment is much the more elegant dress for the afternoon teas as we give them.
Call it what you will–reception, kettledrum, afternoon tea, or something without a name–we have unconsciously, imitating a very different sort of informal gathering, gained an easy and a sensible entertainment in society, from four to seven; which seems
to address itself to all kinds of needs. We are prone in America (so foreigners say) to overdo a thing-perhaps, also, to underdo it. Be that as it may, all agree with Lord Houghton, who laughed at the phrase, that we know how “to have a good time.”