Blog Post #21
by Jane Van Ryan
Imagine for a moment the sights and sounds of high tea at Highclere Castle, scene of the acclaimed “Downton Abbey” television series set in early Twentieth Century England. Listen to the soft tapping of satin pumps on burnished floors, the rustle of a starched apron as a servant delivers finger sandwiches and scones to a mahogany table draped in lace. Picture the light that filters through the leaded glass and brocade drapes at the windows, and the steam rising softly from an often-polished silver teapot.
Truly high tea is a step back into history, to a time when style was as important as substance, and ladies were adorned in finery while men wore ascots and tweed jackets. It was a way to connect with family members and friends and refresh both the body and the mind by observing one of England’s most enduring rituals.
Tea time also provided a venue for gossip. In fact, several prominent authors have written scathing comments about women, tea, and tattling. In 1822, political writer William Cobbett warned against women’s tea parties, saying “The gossip of the tea-table is no bad preparatory school for the brothel.”
Similarly, Henry Fielding expressed a similar attitude toward women and tea in his first play. “If I had a daughter that drank tea, I would turn her out of doors,” Fielding wrote for a character. “The reason men are honester than women is, their liquors are stronger.”
On Saturday, May 22nd, the annual high tea was held at Knoxville’s Mabry-Hazen House. Similar to the teas served in England, the fare included delicate confections such as scones and chocolate truffles as well as a presentation from Nina Martyris harkening back to the early days of tea drinking and tattling. For many, it represented a return to a period in history when our lives were not quite so rushed and conversations took place in person—not on an electronic gadget.
If Evelyn Hazen had held a high tea in the 1950s—she did host large and well-attended dinner parties—it is likely her cook Laura would have served the guests from the antique silver tea service and in the family’s Limoges China teacups, which are part of the Mabry-Hazen House collection. It is also quite possible that Laura could have served peach ice cream and cookies, which were the signature treat of the Mabry-Hazen House in those days.
About 30 people attended Saturday’s tea, and many of the women wore hats and gloves to mark a time when America embraced formality more than today. Although this might sound foreign to Millennials or Gen-Xers, it wasn’t that long ago when women wore dresses, hats and gloves to church, little girls dressed in crinolines and black patent leather Mary Jane shoes, and their fathers wore suits, ties, and freshly-shined shoes.
But those days have largely vanished. Today Americans have a penchant for informality and comfort. Jeans are accepted even at church, school and sometimes at the office. Furthermore, tea-time conversation is becoming a lost art. Many people who sit across from one another in restaurants tend to converse over their Smartphones rather than look each other in the eye and actually talk.
It’s hard to say how this reliance on electronics affects the female prattle that occurred over tea in the 1800s. These days gossip could be limited to 140 characters with hashtags on Twitter.
But one thing is clear. High tea is quite a departure from today’s way of life. It involves food and beverages that are not dispensed from vending machines. It is not consumed while the TV blares or the Smartphone beeps. It is not balanced on one knee while careering through traffic on I-75.
Rather, high tea at the Mabry-Hazen House is a pleasant break from our breakneck pace, and an opportunity to experience the formality of times gone by. To all of those who attended the Mabry-Hazen House tea, I offer my thanks. You helped not only to support the museum and its collection, but also you brought to life a part of English—and by extension U.S.—culture that has nearly disappeared. I sincerely hope you had a wonderful experience.