Tea party (social gathering)
It is characterized by use of the best tea service for presenting tea (and often coffee as well), accompanied by thin sandwiches, sliced cake, little cakes and biscuits and perhaps scones, served on the best china. In warm climates, cool drinks may be offered as well; in cold climates, hot pastries may be added to the menu.
The tea party was a feature of great houses in the Victorian and Edwardian ages in the United Kingdom and the Gilded Age in the United States. It is somewhat passé today, but still survives in the rituals of some communities, (for example, the debutante tea in the U.S.). Teas are still given for visiting celebrities and honoured guests, or when a hostess desires to make a statement for a special occasion.
In general, during afternoon tea, servants stay outside of the room until asked to take dishes or bring new ones. Writing in 1922, Emily Post asserted that servants were never to enter the room unless rung for, or to bring in fresh water and dishes or to remove used dishes. A tea party is the only afternoon tea at which servants may remain. It is permissible for a formal tea to be given without help at all, as nothing has to be passed. In this case the hostess sets everything out and brings in boiling water after the guests are settled. At a tea party, as opposed to afternoon tea, ladies are required to wear "good" afternoon dresses or suits with perhaps hats and gloves (gloves are removed; in winter they are left with the coat) and gentlemen wear business suits.
Notes and references
- Note that 21st Century writing would normally refer to a group of human females as "women", reflecting sensibilities about the use of sexist language. The term "ladies" is used advisedly here to denote a difference in social class. Through the mid-20th Century, a tea party would almost certainly be restricted to women of the upper socio-economic classes: "ladies". It was rare for males to be invited, unless the gathering was an all-male one. See more at lady.
- In this context, biscuit refers to the baked goods known in the US as cookies, rather than the US 'biscuit', which is more akin to the Commonwealth 'scone'
- In the Commonwealth, while scones may be served at afternoon tea, they have pride of place at what is known as a cream tea (sometimes, especially in Australia, referred to as a Devonshire Tea, with ensuing arguments about language usage).
- Emily Post's Etiquette: A Guide to Modern Manners. Elizabeth L. Post. 14th Edition. 1984.