Afternoon Tea Parties and Afternoon Receptions

Afternoon tea parties grew out of necessity as tea was originally sold exclusively at coffee shops, and as coffee shops were a man’s dominion (a man’s club of sorts), women were not allowed to enter. The Victorian illustrated magazine Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly claimed:

“From these places of resort women were, of course, excluded; they could not more have appeared in them than in the taverns of the present day. Their frequenters gave a desultory tone to literature; a style so well suited to feminine capacity that we soon find that women, not wishing to let men have it all their own way, organized little tea-parties — or ‘tea-drinkings,’ as they were then called — where they retailed gossip, with this advantage, that they had the benefit of interchanging sentiments with the opposite sex.”[1]

Afternoon Tea: Tea Kettle, Courtesy of New York Public Library

Tea kettle. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

As this intermingling with the opposite sex and tea drinking grew, so did the interest and popularity of afternoon tea:

“The cup of tea at five ‘clock has (to speak figuratively), crept insidiously into the heart of our social life. The advance, secret at first, then accepted with apology has burst this summer across the frontier … and bids … to drown in a weak and sugary element the fair surface of our afternoon existence … Is there reason in the roasting of eggs — how much more in the drinking of tea!”[2]

In addition, in the mid-1840s, once the hungry Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford, made afternoon tea an event by adding bread and butter, there was no stopping other stylish nineteenth century women from hosting their own afternoon teas or receptions. Tea parties quickly became a delightful distraction hosted by fashionable women arrayed in diaphanous, flowing tea gowns.

To ensure a hostess provided a fashionable tea, numerous books were written. They often advised tables be “flower-decked” and one book even included complete instructions on how to set an acceptable tea table.

“Small-sized plates are set around, with a knife, napkin, and butter-plate laid by each in a regular manner, while the articles of food are to be set, also, in regular order. On the waiter are placed tea-cups and saucers, sugar-bowl, slop-bowl, cream-cup, and two or three articles for tea, coffee, and hot water, as the case may be. On the dinner-table, by each plate, is a knife, fork, napkin, and tumbler; and a small butter-plate and salt-cup should also be placed by each plate.”[3]

Mrs. Beeton's Afternoon Tea Table, Author's Collection

Mrs. Beeton’s afternoon tea table. Author’s collection.

There was also the “cup plate.” It was scattered about parlors and became popular in America in the early 1800s. It served as coaster to prevent teacup rings on furniture, and as tea was hot and teacups had no handles, tea was poured into it to cool before drinking. Additionally, around the same time a creative entrepreneur invented what we call a snack or bridge set, and some hostesses began to use “saucers with a fan-shaped projection for holding cake or bread-and-butter … as they [left] the hands more at liberty.”[4]

Teas, which soon came to describe a meal more than the mere drinking of the “cup that cheers,” were popular not only for the teacakes and delicious sugar-laced tea but also, and perhaps more so, for the social aspects associated with tea. Teas were described as “a happy desideratum for social chit-chat. On such occasions ‘friend meets friend’ only, as a rule, to cement the friendship stronger.”[5] Depending on the type of tea, young fresh-faced teens, coming out for their first season, could also meet eligible bachelors while nibbling on cucumber sandwiches or enjoying tasty tea. When music was included, these fashionable rosy-cheeked teens often displayed their musical talents either by singing or playing the piano, which of course impressed the crowd and often gained the attention of a potential suitor.

Playing the Piano at Tea, Public Domain

Playing the piano at tea. Public domain.

Teas were noted by one author to “possess the elasticity of an india-rubber ball,”[6] meaning they could be economical or costly. They ranged from nothing more than tea and bread and butter to expensive, costly affairs. One book summed up the wisdom of holding afternoon teas in this way:

“Afternoon teas are dear to the hearts of all ladies, but especially so to those whose incomes do not justify them … offering a more expensive form of hospitality.”[7]

Too further promote teas, despite the economics involved, one book offered a word of advice:

“[L]et no woman from false pride abstain from social intercourse. Bring the function if need be within limit of the closest economy, but open wide the gates of hospitality to a pleasant improving circle of friends.”[8]

Additionally, as people were regularly invited to tea at other people’s homes, it became a reciprocal sort of event and it would have seemed impolite for a regular guest at other tea parties to never host a tea of her own.

A Fashionable Tea Party, Public Domain

A fashionable tea party. Public domain.

When teas were hosted, there were various types of afternoon tea parties or receptions. However, one book saw little difference between them. “The difference between a large afternoon tea and an afternoon reception is little more than the name, though the latter is perhaps a shade more formal.”[9] Another book was more thorough when describing the differences. It suggested simple refreshments for afternoon tea:

“Thin slices of bread and butter, sandwiches, fancy biscuit or cake tea, coffee, or chocolate, ice-cream, and bouillon … punch and lemonade — but no wine of any kind … and also salted almonds, cakes, candies, and other dainty trifles.”[10]

For formal teas, menus were hearty and substantial and did not necessarily include dainty trifles. Rather formal teas offered such things as “oyster-salads, pates, boned turkey, ice-cream, … and bonbons.”[11] It was maintained that whether informal or formal what was most important was the finest foods and the best tea be served. One book remarked that the best tea was “English breakfast tea … with cream, cut white sugar, or slices of lemon for those who like tea made in the Russian style.”[12]

Afternoon Tea Party, Courtesy of New York Public Library

Afternoon tea party. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Informal teas were less costly as fewer people attended and fewer refreshments were served. Children were also included at these informal teas and a homey, cozy atmosphere existed. The enjoyment at these small, intimate affairs also seemed immense when compared to the more formal afternoon reception. One author, much satisfied with an informal tea, described it in the following fashion:

“[S]hiny white cloth … glittering silver, … little flat cups, and round buns with currants in them — not muffins, they grease your gloves, and the girls have voted them low form, though to be sure how good they are! … You feel as if you always been there; you have plenty to say, and you forget the existence of your hat; the tea is hot, and strong, and brown [and your hostess] … makes tea perfectly.”[13]

One gentleman talked about his wife’s informal tea parties (or “nick-nacks” as she called them), asserting they were “her great forte.” It may have had something to do with her serving a delightful menu that included such popular items as plum cake, gingerbread snaps, drops cakes, muffins, and jersey wonders,* which are still popular today.

"Polly Put the Kettle On" is an Old English Nursery Rhyme Published in 1803, Courtesy of New York Public Library

“Polly Put the Kettle On” is an Old English nursery rhyme published in 1803. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Afternoon receptions were formal affairs and more work for a hostess than an afternoon tea. Interestingly, most people thought them less impressive and in fact they often seemed to elicit disappointment by attendees. Part of the issue was “all and sundry” were invited and party goers were generally served weak tea in airless rooms choked with people as the “hostess in lilac silk and a sweet smile [stood near the door]; the inevitable white poodle under her arms.”[14] It was also claimed she monotonously repeated, as if a mantra to all entering guests, “Is it not a dear doggums? So good of you to come.”

Food consisted of a buffet in the dining-room and music often accompanied these events requiring “young ladies [to] untie their bonnet-strings after artful surprise at being called to sing the duet they had specially prepared for the occasion.”[15] Perhaps, the highlight of any afternoon reception was the surreptitious hanky panky:

“A little business may be done with boudoirs and back stairs, but it is always lame, and I should never advise it except in extreme and desperate cases [as] flirting in bonnet strings and a hot room is never good for much.”[16]

Whether fashionable or not, tea goers were expected to disperse to their own homes and not linger after the party ended. Most parties were three-hour affairs and after proper socializing and sharing a cup of tea, sometime near seven o’clock was the time deemed most appropriate to depart. Most tea parties were said to include gossipers, “tattlers and busybodies,” Despite the gossipers, after the party it was considered ill-mannered and vulgar to criticize the hostess for the entertainment she provided. Therefore, to a degree all tea parties and afternoon receptions enjoyed a certain level of success, which is likely one reason why tea parties and afternoon receptions continued into the 1900s.

*Jersey wonders, sometimes called des mervelles, were a sort of doughnut, although they were never coated with sugar or filled with jam.


  • [1] Leslie, Frank, Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Vol. 1, 1876, p. 210.
  • [2] London Society, 1877, p. 88.
  • [3] Beecher, Catharine Ester, Miss Beecher’s Housekeeper and Healthkeeper, 1874, p. 111.
  • [4] Loewy, Benno, The Manners of Aristocracy, 1881, p. 56.
  • [5] Wedgewood, Rev. G.R., The History of the Tea-cup, 1875, p. 143.
  • [6] Party-giving on Every Scale, 1880, p. 41.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Table Talk, Vol. 14, 1899, p. 322.
  • [9] Logan, Mrs. John A. and etal., The Home Manual, 1889, p. 17.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] London Society, 1877, p. 190.
  • [14] Ibid., p. 191.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Ibid.

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