Monday, June 27, 2011

The Tea Party


This essay was published on Lapham’s Quarterly website under the title “The Tea Party Parties On” in July 2011.

The first populist tea party movement came in the form of colonial-themed dinners during the Centennial Celebration, marking the country’s hundredth birthday, in 1876. The festive gatherings featured the simple fare of the colonial period, quaintly described in an antiquated style of English. Such dinners would come into fashion again during the last decade of the nineteenth century. This time, however, they reflected a broader nostalgia for the colonial period in response to social forces shaping the country.

A similar sort of colonial-style dinner was held as early as 1873, on the hundredth anniversary of the protest that presaged the American Revolution, by the members of the Orthodox Meeting House in Melrose, Massachusetts. Their “Boston Tea Party” featured entertainment including eight tableaus that reflected the revolutionary theme. In each of the scenes, costumed participants posed silent and motionless in an artistic portrayal of a historic moment, such as the second tableau detailed below, entitled “Refusal of Ye Daughters of Liberty to drink Tea—a Spinning scene at Rev. Morehead’s House,” depicting women at the age-old spinning wheels that were used to twist fibers into thread.

In 1876, such themed dinners were replicated throughout the country. Below is a charming handbill advertising two consecutive dinners given by the Ladies Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Jackson, Michigan in January. The 35-cent church suppers were served on thirteen tables representing the colonies that became the original states in 1776, when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. This program also features various tableaus.

The next handbill comes from a church supper conducted at Foster’s Tavern in Antwerp, New York in March of that year. The bill of fare features traditional colonial dishes, such as baked pork and beans, “cowcumber” pickles (using an old word for cucumber), and “rye n’ injun” bread—a bread made with both rye flour and cornmeal (Indian meal) that is commonly known today as Boston brown bread.

The handbill below comes from a fund-raiser held by the Library Society in Belvidre, Illinois on April 19, 1876. This bill of fare includes pan dowdy, old-fashioned doughnuts, and “lection” cake, referring to the yeast-leavened fruitcakes, or plum cakes, that were traditionally baked on election days in New England, beginning a few years before the Revolution.

In the early 1890s, when colonial-themed dinners came into vogue for the second time, they reflected a more generalized societal fascination with the colonial period. Although the menus were similar to those from 1876, the underlying tone of these dinners was distinctly different, more an expression of the new-found historical interest than a celebration of a particular event. This is evident even when a specific anniversary is referenced. For example, the Ladies’ Aid Society of the Congregational Church in Mendon, Michigan cited the 115th year of Independence as the rationale for their “Olde Tyme Supper” in 1891. Printed on seemingly hand-made paper, this handbill features many of the same dishes seen years earlier at the centennial celebrations. However, in keeping with the “temperance tymes,” hard cider was no longer being served.

Also printed on old-style paper, the handbill below advertises an “Old Tyme Supper” held in Willimantic, Connecticut three years later in 1894. By this time, the organizers of such events seem to have abandoned the idea that they needed a special anniversary to justify the theme of their church supper.

It appears that the second wave of these themed dinners reflected a reactionary movement, driven by a desire to return to a previous era. Unnerved by the waves of immigrants arriving in the United States, the county’s well-established citizens formed hereditary societies in the mid-1880s, restricting membership to those who descended from a particular ethnic background, or whose ancestors participated in certain historic events. Organizations based on this type of social exclusion included the Holland Society of New York (1885), the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution (1889), and the Daughters of the American Revolution (1890), among many others. As it turned out, colonial-style dinners fit nicely with these newly-minted associations. For example, the Society of Colonial Wars held the dinner below in 1894, commemorating the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. The banquet at Young’s Hotel in Boston features game dishes, such as roast venison, roast black bear, and pigeon pot pie, as well as simple colonial fare like bean porridge, baked beans, and pumpkin pie. Although similar bean dishes were served at the “Boston Tea Party” in Melrose in 1873, the two events were not the same in spirit. The Society of Colonial Wars lists the names of its members on the menu, giving their social gathering a whiff of exclusivity; the earlier program was distinguished by those quirky tableaus.

The passion for colonial ancestry also found expression in interior design during the early 1890s when it became fashionable to set aside space in your home to display sacred family heirlooms. It was around this time that the modern-day antiques business began, selling heirlooms to those who had no such patrimony of their own. While antiques were here to stay, the second phase of the colonial-style dinners only lasted for a few  years.

1. Formed in 1892, the Society of Colonial Wars required that its members be descendants of those arriving in the American colonies between the settlement of Jamestown in 1607 and the Battle of Lexington in 1775.

1 comment:

jeanne said...

very instructive to have so many menus to compare this time!