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.

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Anti-Pasta: When Italian Futurists Tried to Ban Pasta in Italy

A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
Carlo Brogi, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While speaking at a multi-course banquet in Milan on November 15, 1930, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti presented his fellow Italians with an incendiary call to action. Pasta, he said, was a “passéist food” that “[deluded people] into thinking it [was] nutritious” and made them “heavy, brutish,” “skeptical, slow, [and] pessimistic.” As such, it should be abolished and replaced with rice.

So began an outrageous crusade against the country’s most beloved carbohydrate. Not only did Marinetti's movement elicit passionate reactions on both sides, but it also had some less-than-tenuous ties to Benito Mussolini's fascist regime.

Mr. Rice Guy

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (center) and his fellow Italian Futurists in Paris in 1912.Proa, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Marinetti’s initial statement spread so widely because he himself loomed large over society at the time. His 1909 “Manifesto of Futurism” launched the Futurist movement, which championed a shift away from the slow, outmoded processes of the past and toward the sleek technologies of the future. Though originally specific to art, Futurism was a nationalist cause at heart—a way for the newly unified country to catch up to other world powers—and it aligned with Mussolini’s fledgling political campaign. In fact, the two men collaborated closely while establishing their respective political parties (Marinetti’s Fasci Politici Futuristi and Mussolini’s Fasci di Combattimento) as World War I came to a close. Marinetti had distanced himself from Mussolini by the early 1920s, but he still invoked Il Duce’s policies when they served his goals.

For the pasta prohibition, they did. To make Italy less reliant on imported wheat, Mussolini’s administration had started promoting rice—which was much easier to produce domestically—over pasta. In the late 1920s, he established the “National Rice Board” and even declared November 1 to be “National Rice Day.” As Philip McCouat writes for the Journal of Art History, the dictator never went so far as to ban macaroni, but citizens were already familiar with anti-pasta sentiment by the time Marinetti began his smear campaign.

On December 28, 1930, the Futurist followed up his dinner speech with the “Manifesto of Futurist Cooking,” co-written with the artist Luigi Colombo (known as “Fillìa”) and published in Turin’s Gazzetta del popolo. In it, they described pasta itself as an “absurd Italian gastronomic religion” and pasta lovers as being “shackled by its ball and chain like convicted lifers or [carrying] its ruins in their stomachs like archaeologists.”

In short, they believed that pasta weighed Italians down and prevented them from achieving any kind of greatness. The ultimate solution was for the government to replace all food with nutritional pills, powders, and other artificial substitutes, but until the chemists could create such innovations, the Futurists would settle for swapping out pasta with rice. “And remember too,” they wrote, “that the abolition of pasta will free Italy from expensive foreign wheat and promote the Italian rice industry.”

Starch Enemies and Allies

While Marinetti’s initial speech had incited a small uprising among Italians, his written manifesto gave the issue a global audience. “Fascist Writer, All Wound Up in Health Subject, Begs Countrymen to Swallow New Theory,” the Chicago Tribune summarized in an article titled “Italy May Down Spaghetti,” which hit newsstands just two days after Marinetti’s manifesto.

Smaller presses covered the bombshell, too. “No, signor. We beseech you, call off your holy war,” Ernest L. Meyer pontificated in Madison, Wisconsin’s The Capital Times. “Would you abolish macaroni and all its tunefully christened cousins—macaroncelli, foratini, maglietti, ditalini, vermicelli—and reduce Italians to the ugly dissonances of beans, cabbage, chops, chard, and chewing gum? Fie, signor, there is no poetry in your soul, and your palate lacks wit.”

Pasta drying in the streets of Naples in 1897.J.F. Jarvis, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

People living everywhere from France to Australia commented on the matter, but nowhere was the response more impassioned than in Italy. Women in the city of L’Aquila sent Marinetti a protest letter, and the mayor of Naples went so far as to proclaim that “the Angels in Paradise eat nothing but vermicelli with tomato sauce.” (Marinetti later retorted that this was simply proof of “the unappetizing monotony of Paradise and of the life of the Angels.”) But Futurism wasn’t unpopular, and the pasta ban had ardent advocates of its own. Italian writer Marco Ramperti, for example, lambasted the beloved repast in a highly imaginative op-ed.

“[Pasta] puffs out our cheeks like grotesque masks on a fountain, it stuffs our gullets as if we were Christmas turkeys, it ties up our insides with its flabby strings; it nails us to the chair, gorged and stupefied, apoplectic and gasping, with [a] sensation of uselessness …” he wrote. “Our thoughts wind round each other, get mixed up and tangled like the vermicelli we’ve taken in.”

The Movement Loses Steam

Marinetti collected the best testimonies from scientists, chefs, and literary firebrands like Ramperti and reproduced them in 1932’s La Cucina Futurista (“The Futurist Cookbook”), which also contained Futurist recipes and instructions for hosting various kinds of Futurist dinner parties. But the 1930s were an exceptionally tumultuous decade for the country—which faced the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler’s growing influence, a war with Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, and eventually World War II—and Italian citizens were focused less on what they were eating and more on simply eating.

Two Neapolitan boys eating plates of pasta, date unknown.Bain News Service, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Furthermore, Futurism soon ran afoul of fascism. In 1937, Hitler decried modern art as “degenerate,” anti-nationalist, and somehow inherently Jewish. Though Marinetti spoke out against these associations, anti-Semitism had already infected Italy, and fascists started condemning the Futurist movement. Since Mussolini was courting Hitler as an ally, his regime’s ties to Futurism could easily have become a political liability. In 1939, when Marinetti published a fiery denial of Hitler’s accusations in a Futurist journal called Artecrazia, the government forced it to shutter.

So, by the 1940s, Marinetti was no longer spewing consistent vitriol against pasta, Il Duce was no longer supporting the Futurist movement, and the world at large was consumed with much greater threats than linguini-induced languor. And if Marinetti ever entertained fantasies about resurrecting the cause after the war, he never got the chance—he died of a heart attack in December 1944, just months before the deaths of both Mussolini and Hitler the following April.