Monday, June 27, 2011
The Tea Party
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. These 35-cent church suppers were served on thirteen tables representing the colonies that became the thirteen original states when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The 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.
Yet another handbill, shown below, is from a fund-raiser held by the Belvidere Library Society in Belvidre, Illinois on April 19, 1876. The 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 1890s, when colonial-themed dinners came into vogue again, 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. The Ladies’ Aid Society of the Congregational Church in Mendon, Michigan cited the 115th year of Independence as a rather weak rationale for their “Olde Tyme Supper” in 1891. Printed on seemingly hand-made paper, the handbill below features many of the same dishes that were served years earlier during the centennial celebrations, except perhaps for the cider that was now absent in keeping with the “temperance tymes.”
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.
In some ways, the second wave of these themed dinners was a reactionary movement, reflecting a desire by some people to return to a previous era. Perhaps unnerved by the waves of immigrants then arriving in the United States, some of the county’s well-established citizens began to form 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), National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution (1889), and the Daughters of the American Revolution (1890). As it turned out, colonial-style dinners fit nicely with the organizing principle of some of these newly-minted associations, as seen on this menu from the Society of Colonial Wars (1892) whose members were descendants of those who lived in the American colonies during the period ranging from the settlement of Jamestown in 1607 to the Battle of Lexington in 1775. Commemorating the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, their banquet in 1894 at “Young’s Tavern” (Young’s Hotel) in Boston features high-end fare such as roast venison, roast black bear, and pigeon pot pie, along with a few simple dishes, including bean porridge, baked beans and pork, 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 dinner a whiff of exclusivity, whereas the earlier program is distinguished by those quirky tableaus.
The passion for colonial ancestry even 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 was born, providing heirlooms for those who had no such patrimony of their own. While antiques dealers were here to stay, the second phase of the colonial-style dinners would only last a few short years.
1. This essay appears on the Lapham’s Quarterly website under the title “The Tea Party Parties On,” posted 26 July 2011.