The Vintage Cookie

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Unpacking the past - and ruminating on tea and Tea

I have been unpacking the dishes, linens, and other "kitchenalia" I bought in Scotland. Most of it is headed straight over to The Vintage Cookie (found at Eclectic Nature, 1503 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria VA).

Most of what I have brought back relates to tea -- to the meal "tea" as well as the beverage. Scotland is simply awash in pretty tea sets, antique, vintage, and new. A tea set generally includes cups, saucers, and dessert plates, what the British call a "trio." The set may also include serving pieces, such as a tea pot, sugar bowl, cream pitcher, and/or cake plate. If the set is really fancy there may be different cups for coffee, but even the most elaborate tea set is a simple thing compared to a full dinner service. The tea set is meant to be used in the parlor, or drawing room or living room or whatever you want to call it, but not in the dining room. The plates are small, you could balance one on your knee if you were not near the tea table, and accommodate only simple food - sandwiches and pastries. In Scotland I found tea sets to suit every fashion, from the high Victorian straight through to the 21st century hipster (Marks and Spencer has some really nice sets). These pretty sets got me to thinking about tea and Victorians and the invention of modern life.

Tea, the meal, served in the mid-afternoon, is a very modern meal. I know this is not how it is generally viewed. Most of us, when we think of tea, think of pretty porcelain, white gloves and good manners, as well as silver trays loaded with cucumber sandwiches and tarts. A full-on British tea is very Victorian. Tea, as served at the Ritz or the Plaza, is about as close as one can get, without ridiculous effort, to a meal served in the manner in which it might have been enjoyed 110 years ago.

But that is exactly the point - we still enjoy "tea," the meal. It still suits our modern, more casual way of life. Tea, for a middle or upper-middle class Victorian, was not a formal meal. Quite the contrary, tea was the casual meal. Most of our modern meals, I argue, are descendants of the middle class Victorian tea. Whenever we eat anywhere outside the dining room, we are essentially having tea.

Tea is the meal that fled the dining room. The Victorian dining room was a fearsome place, where the full power of the Victorian concept of the patriarchal family was brought to bear. Everything about the dining room was intended to reflect the role of the husband and father. The furnishings were to be sober and masculine. The male head of household sat at the head of the table, with each other member of the family sitting in a spot that reflected his or her relationship to the father and his or her place in the family (the woman of the house sat, always, at the foot of the table.) And the father, or his representatives the servants, served the food. People ate the food according to strict rules of etiquette. There were dedicated tools for nearly every food that might be offered. And fingers were never, never to touch food.

Tea, on the other hand, was served in the drawing room, a woman's room. The drawing room could be decorated in pretty colors, and the arrangement of the seating was determined by the whims of the occupants. The participants at tea could sit where they liked, next to friends on a sofa or in a particularly comfortable easy chair, no matter their social position in the family. Servants were generally banished - they brought the tea things in and set them out, but then left. The tea, and the accompanying finger sandwiches and cakes, were served by the women of the household. People ate and talked. If someone could play the piano, they might be prevailed upon to do so for the entertainment of the room. If it were a family tea, with no guests, newspapers and books might even have come out. If TV had existed, it would almost certainly have been turned on.

And that is exactly the point - today we eat meals that would be identified by the Victorians as tea far more often than we sit down to anything that would look to a Victorian like a proper dinner. Our dining tables are covered in old mail and mittens. Instead we either eat in the kitchen (what a middle class Victorian might call High Tea, after he got over the shock of a middle class family eating in the kitchen), or we grab our food and head for the sofa. Of course, we are even less formal than Victorians were. To us, the Victorian tea does look formal - with one person pouring while another hands out finger sandwiches. But those are details. At its core, tea was a democratic meal, where men and women, old and young, could relax, eat, and talk, as equals.

Which brings me back to tea sets and dinner sets. In Scotland I went to a viewing at a very nice auction house. The second floor was given over largely to dishes of every description - tea sets, full dinner sets, fish forks, art pottery pitchers, silver chocolate pots, and anything else that might conceivably hold food or drink. Most of the pieces shown were late nineteenth through mid twentieth century. As I strolled the aisles I couldn't help noticing how much I liked the tea sets, and how little I liked the full dinner services. The dinner services were solid, conventional, pedestrian, and dated. The tea sets, even when clearly Victorian, Art Deco, or Mid-Century, seemed more modern, lighter of touch and far more likely to look good today, sitting on a modern kitchen table, or on the coffee table in the family room, or on a desk next to a laptop computer.

Now I don't generally ascribe moral characteristics to inanimate objects, but I do think in this case that the heavy weight of traditional expectations may be more than the average dinner service can gracefully handle. Tea sets, free from such expectations, are free to be pretty.  The only dinner service I saw which I thought escaped this fate was an 18th century dinner service. On the Orkney Mainland there is an old manor house, Skaill House, where oddly, you will find Captain James Cook's dinner service from his final voyage. (Quick check on Wikipedia will reveal that Captain Cook was killed in Hawaii in 1779.) This was not a woman's service, but it is exceptionally pretty and lighthearted, as you can see from the following picture of the dinner plate.This is not the plate of a man who worried whether or not his dishes supported his place in the patriarchy.


  1. Re: Captain Cook's dinner service: might it be the plate of a man who went months at a time without seeing real flowers? I wonder if there's an academic paper there -- floral motifs in maritime decorating?

  2. He was, according to accounts on the web, a man who cared about his food. His journals recount in detail the new and wonderful foods, and some less wonderful eatables, that he and his crew ate on their journey.