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

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

13 Father's Day Gifts for Geeky Dads

Amazon/Otterbox/Toynk
Amazon/Otterbox/Toynk

When in doubt, you play the hits. Watches, flasks, and ties are all tried-and-true Father’s Day gifts—useful items bought en masse every June as the paternal holiday draws near. Here’s a list of goodies that put a geeky spin on those can’t-fail gifts. We’re talking Zelda flasks, wizard-shaped party mugs, and a timepiece inspired by BBC’s greatest sci-fi series, Doctor Who. Light the “dad” signal ‘cause it’s about to get nerdy!

1. Lord of the Rings Geeki Tikis (Set of Three); $76

'Lord of The Rings' themed tiki cups.
Toynk

If your dad’s equally crazy about outdoor shindigs and Tolkien’s Middle-earth, help him throw his own Lothlórien luau with these Tiki-style ceramic mugs shaped like icons from the Lord of the Rings saga. Gollum and Frodo’s drinkware doppelgängers each hold 14 ounces of liquid, while Gandalf the Grey’s holds 18—but a wizard never brags, right? Star Wars editions are also available.

Buy it: Toynk

2. Space Invaders Cufflinks; $9

'Space Invaders' cufflinks on Amazon
Fifty 50/Amazon

Arcade games come and arcade games go, but Space Invaders has withstood the test of time. Now Pops can bring those pixelated aliens to the boardroom—and look darn stylish doing it.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Legend of Zelda Flask; $18

A 'Legend of Zelda' flask
Toynk

Saving princesses is thirsty work. Shaped like an NES cartridge, this Zelda-themed flask boasts an 8-ounce holding capacity and comes with a reusable straw. Plus, it makes a fun little display item for gamer dads with man caves.

Buy it: Toynk

4. AT-AT Family Vacation Bag Tag; $12

An At-At baggage tag
ShopDisney

Widely considered one of the greatest movie sequels ever made, The Empire Strikes Back throws a powerful new threat at Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion: the AT-AT a.k.a. Imperial Walkers. Now your dad can mark his luggage with a personalized tag bearing the war machine’s likeness.

Buy it: ShopDisney

5. Flash Skinny Tie; $17

A skinny Flash-themed tie
Uyoung/Amazon

We’ll let you know if the Justice League starts selling new memberships, but here’s the next best thing. Available in a rainbow of super-heroic colors, this skinny necktie bears the Flash’s lightning bolt logo. Race on over to Amazon and pick one up today.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Captain America Shield Apron; $20

A Captain America themed apron
Toynk

Why let DC fans have all the fun? Daddy-o can channel his inner Steve Rogers when he flips burgers at your family’s Fourth of July BBQ. Measuring 31.5 inches long by 27.5 inches wide, this apron’s guaranteed to keep the cookout Hydra-free.

Buy it: Toynk

7. Doctor Who Vortex Manipulator LCD Leather Wristwatch; $35

A Doctor Who-themed watch
Toynk

At once classy and geeky, this digital timepiece lovingly recreates one of Doctor Who’s signature props. Unlike some of the gadgets worn on the long-running sci-fi series, it won’t require any fancy chronoplasm fuel.

Buy it: Toynk

8. Wonder Woman 3-Piece Grill Set; $21

Wonder Woman three-piece gill set
Toynk

At one point in her decades-long comic book career, this Amazon Princess found herself working at a fast food restaurant called Taco Whiz. Now grill cooks can pay tribute to the heroine with these high-quality, stainless steel utensils. The set’s comprised of wide-tipped tongs, a BBQ fork, and a spatula, with the latter boasting Wonder Woman’s insignia.

Buy it: Toynk

9. Harry Potter Toon Tumbler; $10

Glassware that's Harry Potter themed
Entertainment Earth

You can never have too many pint glasses—and this Father’s Day, dad can knock one back for the boy who lived. This piece of Potter glassware from PopFun has whimsy to spare. Now who’s up for some butterbeer?

Buy it: EntertainmentEarth

10. House Stark Men’s Wallet; $16

A Game of Thrones themed watch
Toynk

Winter’s no longer coming, but the Stark family's propensity for bold fashion choices can never die. Manufactured with both inside and outside pockets, this direwolf-inspired wallet is the perfect place to store your cards, cash, and ID.

Buy it: Toynk

11. Mr. Incredible “Incredible Dad” Mug, $15

An Incredibles themed mug
ShopDisney

Cue the brass music. Grabbing some coffee with a Pixar superhero sounds like an awesome—or dare we say, incredible?—way for your dad to start his day. Mom can join in the fun, too: Disney also sells a Mrs. Incredible version of the mug.

Buy it: ShopDisney

12. Star Wars phone cases from Otterbox; $46-$56

Star Wars phone cases from OtterBox.
Otterbox

If your dad’s looking for a phone case to show off his love of all things Star Wars, head to Otterbox. Whether he’s into the Dark Side with Darth Vader and Kylo Ren, the droids, Chewbacca, or Boba Fett, you’ll be able to find a phone case to fit his preference. The designs are available for both Samsung and Apple products, and you can check them all out here.

Buy it: Otterbox

13. 3D Puzzles; $50

3D Harry Potter puzzle from Amazon.
Wrebbit 3D

Help dad recreate some of his favorite fictional locations with these 3D puzzles from Wrebbit 3D. The real standouts are the 850-piece model of Hogwarts's Great Hall and the 910-piece version of Winterfell from Game of Thrones. If dad's tastes are more in line with public broadcasting, you could also pick him up an 890-piece Downton Abbey puzzle to bring a little upper-crust elegance to the homestead.

Buy it: Hogwarts (Amazon), Winterfell (Amazon), Downton Abbey (Amazon)

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

8 Facts About the Stonewall Riots

Monica Schipper, Getty Images for Airbnb
Monica Schipper, Getty Images for Airbnb

A pivotal moment in civil rights took place the week of June 28, 1969. That day, police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in New York City's Greenwich Village. The move was a clear condemnation by law enforcement officials of the city's gay population. The volatile riots that followed sparked a new sense of urgency about demanding tolerance for persecuted communities.

1. The Stonewall Inn was operated by an organized crime organization.

In the 1960s, homosexuality was under fire from all directions. Because it was perceived as being amoral, individuals caught engaging in so-called "lewd behavior" were arrested and their names and home addresses were published in their local newspapers. Homosexual activity was considered illegal in most states.

As a result, being part of the LGBTQ community in New York was never without its share of harassment. Several laws were on the books that prohibited same-sex public displays of affection; a criminal statute banned people from wearing less than three “gender appropriate” articles of clothing. Commiserating at gay-friendly bars was also problematic, because officials often withheld liquor licenses from such establishments.

This kind of persecution led to members of the mafia purchasing and operating gay-friendly clubs. It was not an altruistic endeavor: The mob believed that catering to an underserved clientele by bribing city officials would be profitable, and it was. The Genovese crime family owned the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, which became known for welcoming drag queens and giving homeless teenagers and young adults a place to gather. Often, these places got tipped off before a raid took place so they could hide any liquor. But the June 28 raid at the Stonewall Inn was different: No one was tipped off.

2. Police had to lock themselves inside the Stonewall Inn to barricade themselves from the crowd.

During the June 28 raid, police (who were alleged to have targeted Stonewall for its lack of a liquor license and the owners' possible blackmail attempts on gay attendees) confiscated alcohol and arrested 13 people in total, some for violating the statute on inappropriate gender apparel. After some patrons and local residents witnessed an officer striking a prisoner on the head, they began lashing out with anything within arm’s reach—including bottles, stones, and loose change. A number of people even pulled a parking meter from the ground and tried to use it as a battering ram.

The police, fearing for their safety, locked themselves inside the Stonewall Inn as the angry mob outside grew into the thousands. Some were attempting to set the property on fire. Reinforcements were eventually able to get the crowd under control—for one night, at least.

3. The situation got worse on the second night of the Stonewall riots.

After getting the crowd to disperse, police likely thought the worst of their problems was over. But on the second night, the Stonewall Inn reopened and another mob formed to meet the police response. Both sides were more aggressive on the second night of the Stonewall Uprising, with residents and customers forming a mob of protestors and police using violent force to try and subdue them.

“There was more anger and more fight the second night,” eyewitness and participant Danny Garvin told PBS’s American Experience. “There was no going back now, there was no going back … we had discovered a power that we weren’t even aware that we had.”

4. Protestors set their sights on The Village Voice.

Tempers flared again days later when The Village Voice published two articles using homophobic slurs to describe the scene at the Stonewall Inn. Angry about the demeaning coverage, protestors once again took to the streets, with some descending on the offices of the Voice, which were located just down the street from the Stonewall.

5. Not all of the protests were violent.

During the demonstrations—which some observers later referred to as an “uprising”—some protestors opted for a nonviolent approach in order to be heard. Eyewitnesses reported residents forming Rockettes-style kick lines that performed in front of stern-faced policemen. Others sang or participated in chants like “Liberate the bar!”

6. The Stonewall Riots led to New York’s first gay rights march.

Once the riots had subsided, protestors were filled with motivation to organize for their rights. A year after the riots, residents began marching on Christopher Street and Sixth Avenue. The date, June 28, was dubbed Christopher Street Liberation Day. Thousands of people marched the streets while thousands of other people lined up alongside them to protest the treatment of the LGBTQ community at the hands of law enforcement officials and society at large.

Some members of a New York Police Department who had confronted protestors during the Stonewall Riots one year before were now being ordered to protect those same protestors during the walk. Other marches took place in other cities, marking the country's first widespread demonstration for gay rights.

7. The Stonewall Inn is now a national monument.

Since the events of 1969, the Stonewall Inn has been considered an important and historic venue for the new era of gay rights. On June 24, 2016, President Barack Obama made that official when he designated the Stonewall Inn and the surrounding area a National Historic Landmark under the care of the National Park Service. Many credit the Stonewall Uprising with the subsequent surge in gay rights groups. One participant, Marsha P. Johnson, started Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) the following year, an organization devoted to helping homeless LGBTQ youth.

8. The Stonewall Inn is still standing.

Following the riots, the Stonewall’s patrons were still faced with police harassment and were growing uncomfortable with the mob affiliation. Months after the event, the Stonewall became a juice bar before subsequent owners tried operating it as a bagel shop, a Chinese restaurant, and a shoe store in the 1970s and 1980s. New owners renovated the building in 2007.

Today, the Stonewall is once again operating as a bar and club at 53 Christopher Street in Manhattan. Naturally, everyone is welcome.

Note: An earlier version of this article misidentified Marsha P. Johnson's organization as Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries. The correct name is Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.