Many of my international students have dreams of opening an English tea room. They come for my FOUR DAY TEA COURSE here in London to find out more about how they can make their tea room ‘authentic’ or ‘traditional’. It is a fascinating subject to tackle as we sort out the truth from myths.
The archive collection of postcard images on the Reginald B Tuck Postcards website, provide a wonderful snapshot of life in the early 1900s.
Five O’Clock Tea
Having been searching for a contemporary image of an Edwardian tea party, I stumbled across this image of a ‘Five O’Clock Tea’. The hostess is shown in her tea gown. This loose flowing dress could be worn without corsets and suitable for indoor wear. Don’t be deceived into thinking she is casually dressed – her dress, although not suitable for wear outside the home, is just as ornate and expensive as those of her guests. For entertaining in the home she provides a public display of her domestic life! Her guests are all corseted and wearing hats for outdoor wear. The hostess is serving tea to her guests and holding out a sugar lump in some tongs for one of them. On the lower shelf of the tea table, there is a cake.
A Five O’clock Tea was a social event in the home, an occasion for conversation, meeting people, seeing and being seen. The tea was the facilitator for this to take place. Food was served as a simple, light accompaniment, whether thin slices of bread and butter, biscuits or a slice of simple cake, all of which could be eaten using gloved fingers.
This postcard provides me with a contemporary image of an Edwardian tea party . Going through the DB Tuck Archive collection threw up some tasty morsels of a forgotten era of genteel advertising. It illustrates how the domestic practise of tea drinking starts to leak out into the public world.
As transport links improved in the late 19th century, day trips out of the big cities became more popular as the workers flooded out to seaside or inland picturesque resorts. Locals might supplement their income by opening up a room in their home to serve food and refreshments to guests – as always tea provides the cloak of respectability for women to eat and drink outside the family home. Look at the postcards – it is clear these are homes that have been converted.
I am not quite sure what to think of the Rhodesia Tea Rooms decorated with with its (colonial) dream of Africa on the walls. Little tables are set up for couples or families to enjoy teas and light luncheons.
The most important attraction of an english tea room
For the tea room visitors, the most important attraction would have been the ambience and the quality of the food. These people were not socialising with each other but coming to enjoy the location and the food – all under the cloak of respectability attached to drinking tea – the focus shifts from the social occasion to the purchased ‘experience’ – the enjoyment of well priced, good food and drink in attractive respectable surroundings.
Three-Tier Cake Stand
One of the pictures has the three-tier cake stands displayed on the tables, an ideal receptacle for serving a variety of assorted cakes and sandwiches for each table, all produced in the domestic kitchen of the owner. Simple teas, morning coffee and light luncheons would be served, nothing complicated but simple, good-quality, home cooking.
I recommend searching out contemporary images and writings to paint a picture of authenticity – why not take part in my tea quiz and test your knowledge about English tea drinking?
Have you found an English tea room that makes you want to shout out “Wish you were here!”? If so please do contact me and let me know. If you want to learn to bake some traditional English tea room delicacies why not book for a Workshop or contact me for some advice.