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June 1997

  Tea Service Image

Tea Service: Part of a 32-piece set of porcelain decorated in the "Two Quail" pattern.
Made by Worcester Porcelain Company. Worcester, England.
Date: 1765-1770    Id: 79.45.2

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Sugar Bowl

Cream Pitcher

Spoon Tray

Tea Canister

Welcome to our best parlor. You're just in time for tea.

Through the parlor window, we see a servant move chairs from their usual positions against the walls into a companionable arrangement in room's center. The servant is preparing for a formal tea party, a favorite American social ritual in the last half of the 18th century. We welcome you as our guest. Here in colonial America, tea drinking is a daily domestic ritual based on English modes of behavior. The expense of tea from the Orient and the elaborate tea service limit this custom to more affluent members of society. Guests make a more formal and ritualized event.

In a moment, another servant will carry in a tray and place it on a nearby tea table, a new furniture form designed to accommodate the making and serving of tea. Arranged on the tray is the necessary equipment. Centered around the teapot are an elegant English porcelain tea set including handleless cups on saucers; containers for sugar and cream; a spoon tray; bowls; plates containing fruit, nuts, and sweetmeats; and a tea canister. Gleaming silver teaspoons complete the array.

Members of the household gather in the parlor to join friends and acquaintances, as well as strangers visiting the town. The mistress of the house, seated at the tea table, carefully measures the imported tea and begins to brew and serve this very stylish beverage in her new and elegant English tea set. Indeed, the mistress so prizes her imported tea service that she washes it with her own hands rather than trust it to the servants.

The daily ritual, with its own stylized code of conduct and special equipment, serves as a showcase for the fine manners of the hostess and guests. It provides a way of socializing with members of one's own class and an opportunity for exchanging the latest news and gossip.

Foreign visitors' journals relate their many experiences of the American tea party with both admiration and dismay. Americans were admired for the friendliness of inviting strangers into their homes. On the other hand, they were condemned for what one observer referred to as the "hot water torture" of innumerable cups of tea. Guests were expected to provide agreeable conversation, be adept at handling a tea cup and saucer, and understand the proper "tea language." For example, to signify to the hostess that one had drunk sufficient tea, a guest placed the cup upside down on the saucer with the spoon on top of the cup.


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