Steampunk-themed tea parties are particularly popular in North America during the winter. Knowing a bit about the history of tea and the rituals surrounding its consumption can help a participant enjoy the experience. There are also some traditional resources and touches of whimsy that can help you host a party of your own.
High Tea Versus Low Tea: Where You Sit Matters
Catherine of Braganza is credited with introducing tea to England after marrying King Charles II in 1662, but the brew did not become popular until the 1800’s when the price dropped sufficiently to make it affordable for everyone. According to A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson (2013), afternoon tea took off as a social event between 1830 and 1840. This ritual was championed by Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford, who enjoyed a break of tea and other snacks each afternoon. Friends of the Duchess began joining her in this post-lunch tea ritual and the practice spread amongst aristocratic circles. This is the traditional low tea ritual because the participants would sit in low armchairs while sipping tea.
Low tea is where you will find delicacies like crust-less finger sandwiches, scones, cakes, macaroons, and so forth. High tea, which originated among the lower classes during the 1800s, features heartier fare like pies, meats, and cheeses. Pettigrew and Richardson (2013) explain that the name high tea evolved from the fact that this evening meal was served at proper dinner tables, rather than on couches or settees.
A Bit of Whimsy in Tea Party Fare
Looking at cookbooks published during the 1800s and early 1900s is easier than ever thanks to Project Gutenberg and this can help a person or a group recreate authentic menus. One interesting work is The Book of Household Management, by Mrs. Isabella Beeton, which includes the following recipe for toast sandwiches:
INGREDIENTS.— Thin cold toast, thin slices of bread-and-butter, pepper and salt to taste. Mode.— Place a very thin piece of cold toast between 2 slices of thin bread-and-butter in the form of a sandwich, adding a seasoning of pepper and salt.
This looks like a budget recipe for something to be served at low tea. As Cogpunk Steamscribe (2015) writes: “The recipe was originally devised by Mrs. Beeton in 1861, for those times when a family was short of funds. This was not a dainty dish for enjoying with a cup of tea; this was an austerity recipe.” She recommends adding jam or cheese and tomato to make it palatable for modern tastes, but if you want to be authentic—it’s simply a piece of toast between two pieces of bread. This is a recipe that Charlie Brown could have served during his Thanksgiving special.
Even More Whimsy with the Tea
Simply looking at Etsy will provide a lot of inspiration for teacups, saucers, and platters. There are even decorative infusers available. But goldfish-shaped tea bags are certainly unusual—and add a nice “punk” touch to the cup of tea. With each tug of the string, the “goldfish” appears to come to life and swim in a cup. This is a tea bag that encourages the use of clear glass tea cups rather than the overly-decorated porcelain types. Charm Villa will ship these tea bags internationally, but they also look like something a tea enthusiast can make on his/her own.
Beeton, I. (1861). The book of household management. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10136
Cogpunk Steamscribe. (2015). The toast sandwich: A steampunk feminist’s speculations on the peculiarities of Victorian-era cuisine. Retrieved from https://cogpunksteamscribe.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/the-toast-sandwich-a-steampunk-feminists-speculations-on-the-peculiarities-of-victorian-era-cuisine/
Pettigrew, J. & Richardson, B. (2013). A social history of tea: Expanded edition. Danville, KY: Benjamin Press.