Monday, June 27, 2011

The Tea Party


This essay was published on Lapham’s Quarterly website in July 2011.

The first populist tea party movement came in the form of colonial-themed dinners during the centennial celebrations in 1873 and 1876, marking key events related to the country's hundredth birthday. These modest social gatherings featured simple colonial fare quaintly described in an antiquated style of English. When colonial-themed dinners came back into fashion in the early 1890s, they were decidedly different in character. Indeed, the second wave of tea parties was part of a nativist movement that came about in reaction to the large number of immigrants arriving in the United States.

The centennial dinners in 1873 celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.1 The handbill below advertises one such get-together hosted by the Orthodox Meeting House in Melrose, Massachusetts. Interestingly, the entertainment program includes eight tableaus. In each scene, costumed participants posed silently in an artistic portrayal of a historic moment during the American Revolution. In the tableau titled “Refusal of Ye Daughters of Liberty to drink Tea—a Spinning scene at Rev. Morehead’s House,” women in period dress sat motionless at age-old spinning wheels once used to twist fibers into thread.

The la carte menu below comes from a party at the Public Hall in Trumansburg, New York. The prices on the “lyst of victuals” are shown in dimes. For example, tea costs a dime, or a dime and a half when “including tax.”

The admission ticket below, die cut in the shape of a tea box, comes from the centennial party at Boston's Faneuil Hall in 1873.

Colonial-themed dinners became a widespread fad during the official Centennial Celebration in 1876, a hundred years after the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. Church groups and civic associations held parties throughout the country. The handbill below features the same charming illustration as seen on the admission ticket three years earlier. This event was hosted by the Ladies Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Jackson, Michigan. Two consecutive 35-cent suppers were served to diners who sat at thirteen tables representing the thirteen original states. The entertainment program for Wednesday evening includes singing, poetry, and four tableaus.

The handbill below comes from a church supper at Foster’s Tavern in Antwerp, New York in March of that year. The bill of fare lists 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) commonly known today as Boston brown bread.

In Brattleboro, the Union Festival and Martha Washington Tea Party combined two themes, celebrating both the Northern victory in the Civil War and the centennial of the country they recently fought so hard to preserve. A notation on the back reveals that the Col. George Hooker (formerly of the 4th Vermont Infantry) and his wife were dressed as George and Martha Washington, respectively.

The bill of fare at the fund-raiser for the Library Society in Belvidre, Illinois includes pan dowdy, old-fashioned doughnuts, and “lection” cake, a yeast-leavened fruitcake, or plum cake, baked on election days in New England in a tradition going back to a few years before the Revolution.

In the early 1890s, colonial-themed dinners came into vogue again, only this 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  different, more an expression of the new-found historical interest than a celebration of an event. This is particularly evident on the handbill below for an “Olde Tyme Supper” held by the Ladies’ Aid Society of the Congregational Church in Mendon, Michigan in 1891, marking the 115th year of Independence. Seemingly printed on hand-made paper, this menu features many of the same dishes that appeared at the centennial celebrations fifteen years earlier. However, in keeping with the “temperance tymes,” hard cider was not served at this event.

The handbill below, also printed on old-style paper, advertises an “Old Tyme Supper” held in Willimantic, Connecticut in 1894. By this time, the organizers of such events had abandoned the idea that they needed a specific anniversary to justify the theme. This church supper reflects a widely-felt nostalgia for the colonial period as social forces like immigration were reshaping the country.

Unnerved by the waves of immigrants arriving in the United States, the county’s well-established citizens began to form hereditary societies in the mid-1880s. Membership was restricted to those who descended from a particular ethnic background, or whose ancestors participated in specific historic events. Such organizations 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 the organizing principles of these reactionary associations that exercised this type of social exclusion.

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.  In 1894, the newly-formed Society held a dinner at Young’s Hotel in Boston to commemorate the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. The menu shown below features game dishes, such as venison, black bear, and pigeon pot pie, along with simple colonial fare like bean porridge and baked beans. 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 lists the names of its members on this menu, giving the event an air of exclusivity.

The passion for colonial ancestry also found expression in interior design. In the early 1890s, it became fashionable to set aside space in your home to display family heirlooms. It was around this time that the antiques business began, selling old items from a previous period 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. The political event on the night of December 16, 1773, when chests of tea were dumped into the Boston Harbor, was not called a “Tea Party” until the 1830s. Coined fifty years later, the new term, which normally conjures up a genteel social occasion of no consequence, helped revive the collective memory of the incident, enabling it to become one of the leading symbols of the American Revolution. Alfred F. Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution, 1999.

1 comment:

Jeanne Schinto said...

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