Friday, May 17, 2013

A Circle of Friends

Flint, Michigan

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. The menus provide a glimpse of the everyday social life of middle-class Midwesterners, while one in particular reveals the American entrepreneurial spirit that would soon set the country’s wheels into motion.

The late-afternoon meals were called by variety of nameslunch, coffee, tea, and supper. The earliest menu comes from a “New England Supper” on October 31, 1882, a date identified as Halloween. The theme party reflected an unusual juxtaposition of themes, since the Puritans had been opposed to merry celebrations on the day once known as All-Hallows’ Eve. While attitudes in the United States changed with the influx of Irish and Scottish immigrants who brought a joyful spirit to the holiday, it would not be assimilated into mainstream society until the early twentieth century.
Pork and beans, brown bread, and pumpkin pie were foods traditionally associated with the colonial period. They were served at social events across the country during the Centennial Celebration in 1876. 

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 oclock 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.

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

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 unusual notations on the back of this card were inscribed in 1906 when someone (presumably Carrie Rankin) ran a grim tally to determine how many of the “Why Nots” had died over the intervening 20-year period. The word “dead” was written by thirteen of the names.  Interestingly, one of the eight men shown to still be alive was W. C. Durant. This was probably William C. Durant, a leading pioneer of the automobile industry.

William C. Durant, ca. 1885

In 1885, twenty-four-year-old William “Billy” Durant co-founded the Coldwater Road Cart Company that made horse-drawn carriages. Durant later established other companies, and by the early twentieth century, he was manufacturing automobiles. In 1908, Durant 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. Together, they founded Chevrolet which was acquired General Motors in 1915, thereby creating a multi-brand holding company with different lines of cars. Although Durant and rival Henry Ford both foresaw the mass production of automobiles, 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?

1. An additional nine menus dating from 1883 to 1887 were discovered in
 2016, and in 2020, a menu from 1885 surfaced at auction that confirmed the location as Flint, Michigan.


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.


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.

Stephen Barker said...

As an Englishman I would just say that afternoon tea or teatime can mean different things to different people.

Afternoon tea can be a multi course event with sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, cakes and strawberries served with shortbread or cream. Traditionally as the song says 'When the clock strikes four, everything stops for tea' This would traditionally be a middle or upper class event.

For the working classes tea was the main evening meal as opposed to the middle and upper classes who would have dinner.

A tradition that has largely died out is High tea which was usually taken on Sunday mostly a working or lower middle class tradition. This was a more substantial meal with cold meats and salad, trifle or tinned fruits and cake.

Touching on the servant issue, female servants were widely employed certainly up to the First World War and to a lesser extent up to the Second World war. In working class households young female servants were employed to help with cleaning and washing. Male servants were more expensive and in the Nineteenth Century a householder would have to have a licence to employ a manservant.

It is said that the disappearance of servants after the Second World War did much to raise the standard of cooking in English homes, as the middle classes had to do it themselves inspired by writers such as Elizabeth David.

I enjoy your blog very much and the insight it gives to American life at different times in its history.

HeatherD said...

What an interesting post! This group of women (and their husbands) would make a great background for a novel!