How Tea Parties Got Their Start—and How to Hold One Like a Victorian

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This summer marks 150 years since Alice in Wonderland was first published. As most English speakers over the age of 10 are aware, the book contains the most beloved tea party scene in literary history—so why not use its anniversary as an excuse to hold a Victorian-style tea party of your own?

First, impress your guests with some history. The modern European tea party began about 20 years before the publication of Alice in Wonderland, at which point it was still extremely fashionable. Although there are scattered references to fashionable ladies drinking a cup of tea mid-afternoon in the 17th century, most sources trace the tradition back to the 1840s and Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, a lifelong friend of Queen Victoria’s. In the Duchess’s day, most British people ate two main meals: a huge breakfast served early, and an 8 p.m. dinner (there was a light, informal luncheon in between). The Duchess complained of getting a “sinkful feeling” during the long, snackless gap in between, and started taking a pot of tea and some light treats in her boudoir around 4 p.m.

Tea consumption in Europe had increased dramatically in the early 19th century, especially after Europeans learned the secrets of tea cultivation and began establishing their own plantations, instead of relying on China. The idea of an afternoon tea-based snackfest caught on after Anna began inviting friends to meet her for a cuppa (as Brits now call it) and “a walk in the fields.” Other high society hostesses imitated her party idea, creating intimate afternoon events that usually involved elegant rooms, fine china, hot tea, small sandwiches, and plenty of gossip. The custom really caught on when Queen Victoria attended some of these gatherings, adding her royal imprimatur.

The middle classes followed suit, discovering that tea parties were a relatively economical way to host a gathering. There were garden teas, tennis teas, croquet teas, and more. Eventually, the custom of taking a mid-afternoon tea break became standard across British society, although it diverged into two traditions: “afternoon tea,” for the leisured classes (tea and light snacks) and “high tea” or “meat tea,” a heartier workingman’s dinner that would be served when laborers arrived home after work.

If you’d like to hold a Victorian-style tea party, consider following some of the guidelines for various kinds of teas dispensed in 1893’s Etiquette of Good Society by Lady Gertrude Elizabeth Campbell or Etiquette: What to Do, and How to Do It, written by Lady Constance Eleanora C. Howard in 1885. Both are freely available on Google Books in case you need more information about which spoon to use with your clotted cream.

LADY GERTRUDE ELIZABETH CAMPBELL’S TEA TIPS

Campbell says: “a tea, of whatever kind, may be made one of the most agreeable of meals; for tea always seems to produce sociability, cheerfulness, and vivacity.”

She offers the following guidelines for a country-based high tea, perhaps after some archery or lawn tennis in summer, or music, card games, or charades in winter: 

  • Cover the table with a white tablecloth and line the center with flowers or, if it’s summer, with fruit. “Nothing looks more tempting than bowls of old china filled with ripe red strawberries, and jugs of rich cream by their side,” Campbell notes.
  • Adorn the table with glass dishes of preserved fruit and jams, and cakes of various kinds (Campbell suggests plum, rice and sponge cakes), as well as hot muffins, crumpets, toast, and little tea cakes. More substantial fare, such as cold salmon, pigeon, veal and ham pie, should go on the sideboards. If it’s a “hungry tea,” Campbell says, you may add roast beef and lamb “for the gentlemen.”
  • Place the tea tray at one end of the table, and a tray with coffee at the other.
  • Servants should be experienced, since they’ll have plenty of work to do passing around cups of tea, cream, and sugar, and keeping an eye out for empties. There should be one servant for carving up the meats, one to change the plates, another to hand out the bread and butter, plus several more to spare just in case.
  • However, after the fruit has been passed out, the servants should leave the room so that the guests can enjoy themselves without fear of being overheard. (Again, gossip is pretty much the point of a tea party.)
  • The meal may be followed by dancing on the lawn or in the drawing room, with music, charades, or some other kind of parlor entertainment. If there’s no entertainment, guests repair to reception rooms to chat.
  • Furniture arrangement in the reception rooms is key: groups of tables and chairs should be placed so that the guests can form little groups that make the room look full, but not too crowded. “A room stiffly arranged will destroy all the wish for conversation and mirth, and also the power of producing it as well,” Lady Campbell notes.
  • The absolute worst idea, she says, is to let the guests form themselves into one big circle. This leads to an “immediate depression,” since “few people have the sang froid to talk, much less freely and well, when everyone can hear their remarks.” The hostess must keep an eye out to prevent this catastrophe. If she does not, “a gloom pervades, hilarity ceases, only an occasional remark is ventured upon, and the party is converted into a Quaker’s meeting.”

Campbell shares these tips for a light afternoon tea, also known as a “small tea,” usually served around 5 p.m., where things are less formal:

  • Invitations are sent out indicating that the lady of the house will be “at home” on such and such an afternoon (no reply from the guest is needed).
  • Guests are ushered into the hostess’s drawing room. Tea equipment—usually a specially designed set—should be placed near the lady of the house, who pours the tea herself.
  • Cups and saucers should be small and dainty, as should spoons, sugar basin, tongs and cream jug. Plates of cakes and bread and butter should be brought into the room.
  • Gentlemen should offer their services handling the cake and pouring the tea, but should not be too anxious to do so, since “people do not assemble at these 5 o’clock teas to eat and drink.”
  • Larger afternoon teas, however, will require servants to pour and pass out the tea, but at “little teas,” servants should be excluded if possible.
  • Tea may be followed by whist, music, or a dance on the carpet, which “finds favor with young people.”
  • You should “on no account stay later than seven o’clock.”

LADY CONSTANCE ELEANORA C. HOWARD’S TEA TIPS

  • At a country tea, you might add a patterned tablecloth, perhaps one covered in poppies or cornflowers. Adding meat is a welcome touch for those who have come from far away, as is adding a tray with sherry, brandy, or seltzer for those who prefer it to tea. Always include salt, since some people sprinkle it on their bread and butter.
  • Knives should only be used for cutting the cake, and not by each person, unless toast, butter, jam, etc. is being served. Hot water can be sent up in an urn, kettle, or jug, but using a silver jug isn’t a good plan, since the water gets cold quickly. Teaspoons, however, should be silver, while china or colored Venetian glass dishes are best for butter and jam.
  • Hostesses pour the tea themselves, asking each guest if they take sugar, cream, or milk, and then handing the cups to the gentlemen, who in turn hand them to the ladies, who are clustered around the room in little groups. Gentlemen also pass out the cakes, muffins, etc.
  • Howard notes that plates must always be used at a 5 o’clock tea, and that to place cake or scone in a saucer or on the table would be “very vulgar.”
  • Serviettes (also known as napkins) should never be used.
  • The butler and footman can arrange the room and set the table, but then should leave the room, since servants don’t usually wait on guests at teas. Instead “they wait upon each other, who is far less formal and much more agreeable.”

Howard offers the following advice for a formal 5 o’clock tea in London, noting “ladies like it extremely; gentlemen, as a rule, detest it most cordially.”

  • Invitations are given verbally, or on an ordinary visiting card. A request for RSVPs may be added on the right corner, although they aren’t usually (if they are present, an immediate reply is required). If there will be entertainment, that should be noted. Note that “5 o’clock tea” is not the right term for an invitation—the hostess merely says she is “at home.” The host’s name is never added to the invitation, only the hostess’s.
  • Two weeks’ notice is usual for more formal teas, although invitations can be sent out only a week in advance for smaller ones.
  • Formal teas—or “ceremonious teas”—can include from 50 to 200 guests, at which point it’s customary to produce some light entertainment alongside the tea-sipping. “The music should be as good as possible,” notes Howard, “though not important enough to actually be a concert.”
  • The “semi-ceremonious tea” numbers 40 to 100 people, and requires less formal entertainment, perhaps recitations or “good amateur talent, vocal or instrumental.”
  • At even less formal teas, of 10 to 25 people, general chatting or tête-à-têtes can take the place of entertainment or instruction.
  • Never station a servant at the door to announce guests; they should walk right in, since they know the hostess is at home.
  • Never use red cloth at any party unless royalty is present.
  • Tea and coffee should be in silver urns, and the buffet prettily decorated with flowers that are in season, as well as fancy biscuits, brown and white bread and butter cut very thin, and cakes (plum, seed, pound, and sponge). Sherry, champagne, claret, lemonade, ices, fruit, potted game, sandwiches, and (in the summer) bowls heaped with strawberries and whipped cream should be placed on the center table.
  • More formal teas should be served in the dining room, smaller teas in a boudoir or anteroom.
  • It is polite to greet your hostess before taking any tea, coffee, or sweets. The hostess should stand just inside the doorway of the room at a more formal tea, and at a small tea, she receives guests inside the room, advancing a few steps to greet each arrival.
  • Unless a hostess is lame or very old, etiquette requires that she should move about the room among her guests to make sure they have someone to talk to and have enough tea at all times. Her daughter or daughters should help her. Guests, too, can move around the room—there is no need to stay in one spot unless the conversation is “very absorbing.”
  • Formal, general introductions are not needed, although the hostess may introduce two people if she thinks that one, or both, would value her doing so.
  • Punctuality is not necessary at 5 o’clock tea, and guests should feel free to come when they like and leave when it pleases them.
  • Ladies may ask for a second cup of tea if they are thirsty, but it would “look peculiar” if they ask for chocolate, milk, soda, cider, or some other beverage not usually served at a tea.
  • Ladies intending to eat ices, cake, bread, etc. should take off their gloves, but gloves can stay on if one is only drinking tea or coffee without eating.
  • Conversation should be in a low tone so as not to disturb those who are doing their best to amuse the guests, and guests should at least try to look as if they are listening to the performances.
  • Never tip the servants.
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