Friday, May 17, 2013

A Circle of Friends

Flint, Michigan
1882-1887  
 
“Five O’clock Tea” by Charles Morgan McIlhenney (1887)

The American custom of having afternoon tea is often traced back to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, shortly after it opened in 1898 when New York high society engaged in their version of the British ritual. However, well before that, members of the middle class were using the term “five o’clock tea” to describe some of their get-togethers. This is illustrated by nine enigmatic menus from the mid-1880s that recently came to light—a surprising discovery, since menus were not often printed for private events in homes. The only information about them was that they all came from the same source, apparently saved by a woman who belonged to a small social group; one of the menus was from a dinner dance that included a broader circle of friends. Although the menus included the names of the participants, the use of nicknames and initials made it difficult to determine where the menus originated. Still, through trial and error, I was able to identify the location as Flint, Michigan, then a small town of about 9,000 people. In addition to providing a glimpse of the foodways and social practices in the nation’s heartland, one of the menus also reveals the inherent optimism of the rising middle class, reflecting the confident spirit that would eventually set the country’s wheels into motion.

These late-afternoon meals are called by variety of nameslunch, coffee, tea, and supper. (In commercial eating establishments, a light meal served in place of lunch or supper might have then been called a collation, an old-fashioned word the women did not employ.) The earliest bill of fare comes from a “New England supper” on October 31, 1882. The occasion is also identified as Halloween. This represents an unusual juxtaposition of themes, for the Puritans of New England had been opposed to merrily celebrating the day on the liturgical calendar known as All-Hallows’ Eve. Although attitudes in the United States changed with the influx of Irish and Scottish immigrants who approached this annual holiday with a joyful spirit, it would take until the first decade of the twentieth century before Halloween was fully assimilated into mainstream society.
 
Dishes listed on the inside include pork and beans, brown bread, and pumpkin pie. Associated with the colonial period, these traditional foods were featured at theme suppers across the country during the Centennial Celebration in 1876. 



Everyone usually brought a dish to these gatherings. 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, home-made potato chips (called “Saratoga chips”) and a lettuce salad with Durkee’s dressing produced in Queens, New York. Also used as an invitation or place card, this menu is faintly inscribed with the name of Carrie Rankin, probably the person who saved these menus. Her name appears on all of them in one form or another. Then twenty-nine years old, she brought the baking powder biscuits shown on the menu below.
 


The late-afternoon meal at Mrs. Flint Smith’s house in October 1885 is dubbed a “four o’clock lunch.” These attractive menus are printed in the “artistic style,” featuring the fancy font 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 possibly made these menus for his wife and her friends. The personal nature of these small-lot production runs may explain why the name of the printer does not appear on any of the menus. 


Several menus are marked with the Roman numeral “XIV,” suggesting that this particular social clique comprised fourteen women. Reflecting the typical foods of the era, the five oclock tea in November at Miss Minnie Hamilton’s home includes cold tongue, oyster sandwiches, and Parker House rolls, named after the hotel in Boston. In fact, the menu below is printed on card stock engraved by J. A. Lowell in Boston.




Strawberries were in season in May 1886, when Annie Chase hosted this afternoon coffee. Many of these meals include a lettuce salad, a seasonal dish that was not often served at hotels and restaurants. In fact, the word “salad” on commercial menus often referred to cooked salads. Lettuce varieties were then highly perishable and only available in local markets during the spring and fall, until refrigerated rail cars were further developed in the early twentieth century.


Loretta Putnam hosted the group in July of possibly the same year. To escape the heat of the day, this so-called “tea” began at 7:30 in the evening. Featuring cold dishes appropriate for the summertime, this supper may have been served al fresco, either on the porch or in the yard.



In September 1886, twelve members of the “XIV” ate at the local Bryant Hotel, an unusual venue for a potluck lunch where everyone brought a homemade dish.




On April 27 of the following year, Carrie Rankin hosted this lunch at her home on First Avenue and Lyon Street in central Flint. As one might expect in a small town, this group of friends (some of whom were related) lived within a six-block radius of one another.
 


Representing a different type of affair, the menu shown below provides an added perspective of the social customs and spirit of the era. It comes from the third annual party of the Why Not Club, comprising a group of men whose membership included Francis Rankin and a few others who were married to women belonging to the “XIV.” The event was held on Thursday evening, November 26, 1885, which happened to be Thanksgiving, although there is no reference to the holiday. The festivities began with dancing, followed by a late supper at the Bryant Hotel.
 



 

Sometimes a menu is inscribed with a brief comment, identifying the nature of the event. However, the somber notations on the back of this menu are odd. Twenty years later in 1906, someone (presumably Carrie Rankin) used this list of the club’s members to run a grim tally, adding up how many of the “Why Nots” were now dead. Although thirteen men were marked as having died, the total was incorrectly noted as “12.” While looking more closely to figure out this math error, I noticed the name “W. C. Durant,” one of the eight men shown as still living. This was probably William C. Durant, a leading pioneer of the automobile industry who embodied the optimism reflected by the name of the club.

William C. Durant, ca. 1885
During the year of the party in 1885, twenty-four-year-old “Billy” Durant co-founded the Coldwater Road Cart Company, making horse-drawn carriages. He went on to establish other companies, and by the early twentieth century, he was manufacturing cars. In 1908, he and Frederic L. Smith formed General Motors. After losing control of the company in 1910, Durant partnered with Swiss-born race car driver Louis Chevrolet. Working together, they founded Chevrolet which later acquired General Motors in 1915, thereby creating a system of multi-brand holding companies with different lines of cars. Although Durant and rival Henry Ford both foresaw the automobile as a mass-produced product, these entrepreneurs approached the market differently. Ford believed in making one basic model, famously saying “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Durant, on the other hand, drew on his experience in the carriage business, producing automobiles for various incomes and tastes. Why not? 

5 comments:

Sov said...

I'm a regular reader, and so, a fan. But I must question your initial assertion that there is an "American custom of having afternoon tea."

These had to be upper class (perhaps anglophile) women, who could leave their homes close to dinner time, with their children eating what their cooks served, and their husbands left to their (creative) own, possibly at an equally anglophile club downtown.

Sov

Henry Voigt said...

Thank you for your comment. It appears that these young, middle-class women employed the word “tea” to give their potluck lunches and suppers a touch of class—the same reason they had menus printed for these occasions. Interestingly, the term was used interchangeably with “lunch,” “coffee,” and “supper,” indicating that these get-togethers in a small Midwestern town bore little resemblance to the British tradition. However, you are correct in suggesting that during the late-nineteenth century, it was the American upper-classes who had the resources and desire to mimic English social customs, such as having afternoon tea.


Bob_in_MA said...

I've done a lot of research on the era ca. 1900, and I think there's a misconception about class differences at the time. For instance, I really don't think these needed to be wealthy women, just securely middle-class, or petite bourgeoisie. What you'd expect of someone who runs a print shop. Would someone like that seriously be likely to belong to a "anglophile club downtown"? Seems pretty unlikely.

And servants were not a luxury restricted to the rich. They were generally paid $10-20/month. I've seen ads as low as $8/month.

I've often heard the argument put forward that no one but the wealthy had leisure time, yet every afternoon in New York dozens and dozens of vaudeville houses were running cheap matinees. I doubt you'd find the Astors attending.

Bob_in_MA said...

I forgot to add, I really enjoy your posts!

Jan Whitaker said...

Henry, great post! That collection was quite a find.

Regarding social class, I would say that tea parties definitely had "cachet" and reflected, if not membership in the town/city's business and professional class, certainly aspirations to attain that status. Also, WASP ethnicity.