The American custom of having afternoon tea is often traced back to the late nineteenth century when the upper classes in New York began to routinely engage in their version of the British ritual. However, well before that date, average women were using the term “five o’clock tea” to describe some of their get-togethers, as shown by nine enigmatic menus from the mid-1880s that recently came to light—a surprising discovery since menus were seldom printed for such events in private homes. These mementos were apparently saved by a woman who belonged to a small circle of friends. Although the menus contained the names of the participants, the use of nicknames and initials made it difficult to determine where the social events had taken place. Nevertheless, through trial and error, it was eventually determined that the women lived in Flint, Michigan, then a town of about 9,000 people. In addition to providing a glimpse of everyday life in the Midwest during that period, the menus reveal the optimism of the rising middle class that would soon set the country’s wheels into motion.
In the spring of 1885, the potluck supper at May Joyner’s house was called a “five o’clock tea” even though it included foods like fried chicken and home-made potato chips, then called Saratoga chips. Interestingly, the salad is dressed with Durkee’s, a commercial product made in Queens, New York. The menu below is faintly inscribed with the name of Carrie Rankin who brought the baking powder biscuits to this affair. Her name appears on all of the menus in one form or another, indicating she was probably the one who saved them. At the time of this gathering, she was twenty-nine years old.
The late-afternoon meal at Mrs. Flint Smith’s house in October of 1885 is dubbed a “four o’clock lunch.” These menus are printed in the so-called artistic style, featuring the kind of fancy type designs and quirky embellishments then in vogue. Carrie’s husband, Francis H. Rankin, Jr., was a letterpress printer (and publisher of the Wolverine Citizen) who probably made these menus for his wife and her friends.
Several menus bear the Roman numeral “XIV,” indicating the social group comprised fourteen women. The “five o’clock tea” in November of 1885 at Miss Minnie Hamilton’s home included cold tongue, oyster sandwiches, and Parker House rolls, named after the luxury hotel in Boston. The menu below is printed on card stock engraved by J. A. Lowell in Boston.
Strawberries were in season in May of 1886, when Annie Chase hosted an “afternoon coffee.” Many of these meals included a seasonal lettuce salad. The word “salad” on hotel and restaurant menus often referred to cooked salads, since the highly-perishable lettuce varieties were only locally available in the spring and fall.
Loretta Putnam hosted an evening “tea” in July of possibly the same year. It began at 7:30 p.m., most likely to escape the heat of the day. The supper, featuring cold dishes appropriate for the summertime, may have been served al fresco, either on the porch or in the yard.
On April 27 of the following year, Carrie Rankin hosted a lunch at her home on First Avenue and Lyon Street in central Flint. As it happened, this group of friends and relatives lived within a six-block radius of one another.
The menu below comes from the third annual party of the Why Not Club. This social group seemingly comprised Francis Rankin and other men married to the women who belonged to the “XIV.” The dinner dance was held at the Bryant Hotel on Thanksgiving evening in 1885, although the menu contains no reference to the holiday.
The notations on the back of this card are unusual. Twenty years later in 1906, someone (presumably Carrie Rankin) ran a grim tally to determine how many of the “Why Nots” had died. Thirteen men were marked “dead.” Interestingly, one of the eight men shown to be still alive was W. C. Durant. This person was probably William C. Durant, a leading pioneer of the automobile industry who embodied the optimistic spirit reflected by the name of the club.
|William C. Durant, ca. 1885|
1. An additional nine menus dating from 1883 to 1887 were discovered in 2016, and in 2020, a menu from 1885 surfaced that confirmed the location as Flint, Michigan.