A Southern belle in training, Patricia Beaver (Mitchell) is hostess for an informal tea for her dolls and kitten (in her arms), December 1951.
Patricia's tea loses its focus as Patricia and kitten enjoy the rocking horse, while another guest collapses on the floor (lower left).
A generation later: Reba Beaver and Sarah and Patricia Mitchell at their Palm Court table in the Ritz, London, July 3, 1982.
Reba Beaver and her granddaughter Sarah Mitchell enjoy the essence of tea at the Ritz.
Palm Court Menu, the Ritz, London, 1982
The ritual of English tea time is believed to have originated in the late 1700's when Anna, Duchess of Bedford, ordered that a plate of cakes be sent up to her with her afternoon cup of tea.
The Duchess chronically experienced a “sinking feeling” (what we would term “low blood sugar”) in the late afternoon. To tide her over the long hours between meals she turned to carbohydrates.
Other royals immediately copied the Duchess, and afternoon tea parties became quite fashionable. Low tables were set up in front of sofas and chairs, and the ladies found a new opportunity to show off pretty clothes, fine china, embroidered linen tablecloths and napkins, and silver tableware.
Tea time was also the time to exchange juicy gossip and serve refreshments. Soon darling little sandwiches and sweet pastries as well as scones were being arranged on decorative stands and plates for the ladies' pleasure.
The tea party mania quickly spread across the Atlantic where tea was already enjoyed as a beverage. This fondness for tea was later suppressed by the patriotic Americans during the era immediately preceding the American Revolution because of the unreasonable British tax on tea.
However, by April 27, 1776, Congress announced in the Philadelphia Packet that “the drinking of tea can now be indulged.” The custom of afternoon tea parties was not really revived in this country, though, until the mid-1800's, when Victorian ways were in vogue here. Leisure-class American ladies began having “kettledrums” at 4 p.m. “Kettledrums” was called that in connection with the term “teakettle.” Petits fours and other dainty delights were served amid Victorian opulence.
A Victorian diarist, Maud Berkeley (Maud: The Illustrated Diary of a Victorian Woman, Chronicle Books, 1987) gave an anecdote concerning tea time: “Mrs. Barnes had out a lovely tea-cloth for her tea-party, worked all over with cyclamens and honeysuckle. Shoggie Boucher, unused to such dainty, contrived to slop his tea all over it. Thankful it was not I. As it was, my new feather boa, which I wore for the first time, got into my teacup, causing much alarm and merriment to all assembled. Lilian Black-Barnes was, as ever, strong in adversity and wrung out the offending object in the kitchen sink. Fear it may never be the same again, none the less.”
My family, Mother, and I were able to relieve some of that sophisticated elegance (minus the drippy boa) when we had tea at the Ritz in London. The Palm Court, an open area on the ground floor of the hotel, is a study in turn-of-the-century decor. Gilt statuary, palms, and other plants, and stylishly-set little tables beckon welcomingly under high-up, rose-tinted skylights.
Our waiter brought us a selection of finger sandwiches of smoked salmon, ham, cucumber, Cheddar cheese, cream cheese, and chives, or egg salad. Scones (similar to American biscuits) were offered with butter, and various preserves and jellies.
Along with this we were served Indian or China tea, and hot chocolate for my young daughter. Then the dapper waiter presented a vast tray holding many French pastries and cakes from which we could choose. After several teeny sandwiches and a couple of marmalade-coated scones, a chocolate eclair seemed to add carbohydrate overload to carboload, but “when in England, do as the English do.”
This tea feast was served between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. Around 10:00 p.m. we had regained just enough appetite to sample some fish and chips (french fries), and then we put our weary stomachs and ourselves to bed.
Copyright © 1991–2003 Patricia B. Mitchell.