It used to be that a tea party was something I had with a friend at the bottom of the pool. We’d plug our noses and sink and then see how long we could mime pinkies-up tea-sipping before we ran out of breath or were upended by our buoyancy. But that was long ago, and now, of course, the conservative uprising that’s currently heating our political kettle has been branded the Tea Party movement, a development with troubling consequences for the Wedgwood and biscuits set: It is now very hard to have a tea party—festive or aquatic—without thoughts of Sarah Palin and Rand Paul clouding the darjeeling.
The phrase tea party has an impeccable political pedigree, referring as it does to the Boston Tea Party of 1773, an act of brilliant agitprop that helped get the American Revolutionary War rolling. But if the tea-party-as-tax-uprising is going to be revived, I’d like to propose that we also resurrect the tea party itself. The purely social tea party—popular from the middle of the 18th century through the end of American Prohibition, but less frequent today—deserves a comeback. It’s actually a brilliant way to entertain informally but in person, and it’s well-suited to an age when too much “connection” is done in social networks and not enough done over crumpets.
Tea became the quintessentially Chinese drink during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), and a cultural touchstone in Japan a few hundred years later, but it didn’t start being imported in bulk to Europe until 1610, when the Dutch brought in a modest shipment of the stuff. It wasn’t an immediate hit: Despite its purported medicinal qualities, tea was very expensive in the 17th century, and at the time, Europe was in the throes of another caffeinated love affair—with coffee, which was cheaper.
During the next century, however, tea became Britain’s iconic beverage. Cultural historian Tom Standage points out: “It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that almost nobody in Britain drank tea at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and nearly everybody did by the end of it.” In his book A History of the World in Six Glasses, Standage outlines how tea became the essential British drink: It got an early boost from the Portuguese wife of Charles II, Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705), a tea fan who inspired aristocratic copycats to sip the beverage from tiny porcelain cups. The increasing power of the British East India Co., which began importing tea directly from China in the beginning of the 18th century, made tea much cheaper, too, so that it became a part of not just aristocratic life, but that of the lower classes as well. Tea warmed bellies even when there wasn’t a hot meal on the table.
That’s tea; what about the party? Tea has always had a feminine slant. In England, women were allowed in tea shops (like Thomas Twining’s) and tea gardens, even though they were not welcome in coffeehouses. Tea was also prepared at home, often in drawing rooms, for small chatty gatherings. (I’m speculating about the chattiness, but if the purported quantity of tea consumed is to be believed—dozens of those tiny cupfuls—then I have to imagine the conversation was free-flowing.) The lady of the house would keep the tea locked in an often ornate tea caddy and, once her maid had brought hot water to the table, would prepare the tea for her guests. Hostesses expected propriety from their guests: Slurping was frowned upon, as was dumping saucer drippings back into a teacup. By the second half of the 18th century, the tea party became a test of an early-modern woman’s savoir faire and also her household’s good financial standing. Silver tongs and porcelain teapots (which were very likely imported from the Orient, along with the tea) did not come cheap. Some British families even chose to have portraits painted of themselves at tea, perhaps to highlight how well-off they were. Though fellow trading nations Holland, Portugal, and, eventually, Russia developed tea cultures, other major European powers—among them France, Germany, and Italy—remained rather unmoved by the beverage’s appeal. To nondrinkers, tea could signify (misplaced) social aspiration: The historian Jean-Louis Flandrin quotes one French countess sniping about a relative: “He takes tea twice a week and he thinks himself the equal of a Locke or Newton.”
Many American colonists had warmed to tea before the British did, adopting it soon after it was first brought to the colonies by Dutch traders in the second half of the 17th century. (The Dutch liked to take their tea in the afternoon, with sweets, like clove-scented theerandjes cookies.) Though it wasn’t aboveboard, Americans often bought their tea from Dutch smugglers, on whose imports they paid no tariff, rather than paying full fare for British imports. The East India Co., stuck with a surplus of tea, pressured Parliament to act, and the British government passed the Tea Act in 1773. It was the culmination of a series of earlier colonial taxes on necessities like sugar, and it caused an uproar. The law allowed the British East India Co. to directly import tea from China to America and actually lowered the tariff on tea while increasing the enforceability of the company’s monopoly on tea imports. The problem wasn’t just that the colonists were being taxed without representation; it was that the British government was getting in the way of their under-the-table bargains on tea.
And so on the evening of Dec. 16, 1773, a band of inspired troublemakers (including people with a hand in tea smuggling networks) famously dumped 342 chests of the East India Co.’s tea into the Boston Harbor. The Boston happening was outrageous, audacious, and certainly helped bring the American colonies much closer to revolt. But was it actually called a tea party at the time? Probably not. Though the social term tea party was in use in the 1770s, it seems that the sardonic term tea party, referring to the protest, actually emerged a few decades later, in the early 19th century.
It is often said that America became a nation of coffee drinkers after the Boston Tea Party, since revolutionaries rejected the tea that the British government tried to force into their pots. But the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink insists that after the Revolution, Americans once again sought comfort in their teacups, and that coffee’s rise in the United States didn’t really begin for several more decades.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the 19th century saw the further trickling down of tea ritual from upper to lower classes. Afternoon tea was associated with the leisured classes in England and was often served with bite-size finger food—the tender crustless sandwiches, the buttery scones—in the long hours between a light lunch and a late dinner. And while not everyone could afford a silver tea service, the rise of companies like Wedgwood, which helped industrialize the porcelain business, meant that less wealthy homes could still enjoy a proper tea party. In fact, at the same time that afternoon tea developed, another sort of tea—high tea—emerged. In the United States, afternoon tea is often mistakenly referred to as “high tea,” because it sounds fancier, but in England, high tea has typically been a less chic, more provincial meal. Filled out by cold cuts, preserved fish, or meat pies, it was customarily heartier than the little goodies served at a posh afternoon tea, essentially an early supper eaten right after returning home from work.
But it is afternoon tea that Americans have long thought of, and aspired toward, in their tea parties—all fancy clothes, sage servants, and delicate nibbles. In 20th-century America, department stores, hotels, and tea rooms mimicked British afternoon tea. The ritual has been observed even by kids too young for Earl Grey: Children’s tea sets from the late 19th century onward allowed little girls to mimic the ceremony with their dolls, as in this painting by Eastman Johnson. This little-girl tea tradition is the forerunner of both my pool-bottom tea charades and today’s lucrative party businesses, which throw fancy-dress tea parties to celebrate a young girl’s birthday.
Given these scenes of Americans putting on airs, it’s no wonder the phrase tea party connotes snobbery in this country, but it is too bad. A tea party is a handy tool in entertaining. While it has an air of poshness, now that we no longer need to spend a fortune to acquire tasty oolong or a handsome stoneware pot, it’s actually a rather frugal and flexible way to entertain your friends. There is something liberating about entertaining off-hours, without the pressure of a full meal to serve or a dining room to set. Unlike a cocktail party, you don’t need to worry about red wine stains or tipsy friends driving home. Tea can be served in the backyard, on a futon couch in the living room, outside, it doesn’t much matter. (The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink points out that the collapsible, portable tea table was invented for just such spontaneity.) Having guests for tea means you don’t have to make a full dinner for them. Scones or little crustless sandwiches are adorable, but even these are by no means essential; your favorite Trader Joe’s cookies would do. So perhaps it is time for a shadow tea party movement to arise; of actual tea parties, in which we are freer and more informal in inviting friends over to our houses, but ever welcoming.