One of the great ceremonies of Regency life, one that defined gentility, was the taking of tea.
The Regency is sorta midway in the story of tea in England. We’re past the Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Century with its careful, stingy measuring of tea by the mistress of the household, the leaves locked up safe in a decorative caddy. We haven’t reached the Victorian era where tea was the daily drink of every working man and city housewife.
John MacDonald, a footman in the last half of the Eighteenth Century, would negotiate a salary that included an allowance for tea and sugar. But when he writes:
“My master had always plenty of fine tea, of which I drank some in the afternoon, and with which I treated the maid, and the maid also at the next house.”
I’m pretty sure he’s helping himself to the household store. At this time, tea is still a particular treat belowstairs.
When we come to early Victorian times ... Henry Mayhew, in London Labour and the London Poor, speaking of the 1840s, describes the street sellers.
“There are, moreover, peculiar kinds of stalls — such as the hot eels and hot peas-soup stalls, having tin oval pots, with a small chafing-dish containing a charcoal fire underneath each, to keep the eels or soup hot. The early breakfast stall has two capacious tin cans filled with tea or coffee, kept hot by the means before described.”
In 1840, tea had ceased to be a servants’ perquisite, reluctantly granted by the employer and pilfered by the staff. Now it’s on the street. It’s Everyman’s drink.
But back to the parlor ...
The taking of tea in the parlor meant slow, stylized ritual and unnecessary elaboration. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum from the hurried dipping tea out of a capacious tin can.
Consider this spread of tea complication.
Going along from the left:
Teapot with its lid. Behind it, the tea caddy where the tea leaves live. In front of the tea pot, a cup, saucer, and silver spoon. The center spot on this tray is a shallow plate with orange slices. It might just as easily hold scones or muffins.
Working our way in from the right:
We have the slops bowl in back. That is a lovely useful thing to have, isn’t it? I kinda wish we had slops bowls for our lives where we could clear all the mess neatly away and go on with the tea party.
What else? There’s the bowl of sugar cubes. These cubes were not neatly square. They were nipped off the two-foot-high cone of sugar kept in the kitchen and came out irregular and all nobbly shaped. Over the sugar bowl are the sugar tongs. And here at the front of the sugar bowl is the milk jug.
Missing from this set is the strainer. About all the paintings I find of folks drinking tea,
the tea strainer is nowhere in evidence. Yet they had them. They’re in museums. One would certainly have strained the tea leaves out of the drink at some point. Maybe they were considered too messy to put in the picture.
Also missing from this array is the kettle of hot water that sat over on the hearth
keeping warm. The water would be used to warm up and dilute the tea in the teapot. You couldn’t hoist the teabags out of the water and put an end to the brewing, there not being any teabags yet. However long the tea party lasted, that was how long the tea steeped.
Here we have folks taking tea and the kettle is right there in evidence. One could also have a tea urn or samovar with coals under it, keeping warm, right there on the table.
This here is a silver tea kettle that would have had pride of place. The comment on this piece at the Victoria and Albert:
“The tea kettle and stand would have been the most expensive part of the tea service. For example, Mrs. Coke paid the goldsmith ... £25 13s 1d for her kettle and lamp. Her teapot cost just £10 1s 8d.”
That comparative value is not set in stone. The best porcelain would cost more than uninspired silver, but all things being equal, a silver tea service was the conspicuous consumption of the time. When the aged retainer staggers in with a tea tray full of silver teapots and silver slop bowls and what have you, it’s not just heavy. It’s (staggeringly) expensive.
But by the Regency, not all tea was drunk in the parlor with such magnificent display.
We also have a cozier, more informal tea taking. One little pot of tea, prepared in the kitchen and brought up with a cup or two at the side. That was the tea laid down at the hero’s elbow while he worked on his accounts or the tea brought to the heroine and her sister as they put their heads together and plotted.
This is my tea service there on the left. Rough and ready. But see that tea pot? It is of an ancient design. See it there in the painting by Chardin? And the little tea bowl is handmade by an artist in such things. I’m happy using this set. It makes me feel good, every time.
Do you have a tea set or a coffee service that is a joy to hold in your hands? Maybe something you inherited or bought at a special time of your life. Maybe a present.