It's time to resurrect the purely social tea party.

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July 2 2010 11:21 AM

The Tea Party Is Giving Tea Parties a Bad Name

Get out your Wedgwood and bake some scones. It's time to resurrect this delightful social custom.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

It used to be that a tea party was something I had with a friend at the bottom of the pool. We'd plug our noses and sink and then see how long we could mime pinkies-up tea-sipping before we ran out of breath or were upended by our buoyancy. But that was long ago, and now, of course, the conservative uprising that's currently heating our political kettle has been branded the Tea Party movement, a development with troubling consequences for the Wedgwood and biscuits set: It is now very hard to have a tea party—festive or aquatic—without thoughts of Sarah Palin and Rand Paul clouding the darjeeling.

The phrase tea party has an impeccable political pedigree, referring as it does to the Boston Tea Party of 1773, an act of brilliant agitprop that helped get the American Revolutionary War rolling. But if the tea-party-as-tax-uprising is going to be revived, I'd like to propose that we also resurrect the tea party itself. The purely social tea party—popular from the middle of the 18th century through the end of American Prohibition, but less frequent today—deserves a comeback. It's actually a brilliant way to entertain informally but in person, and it's well-suited to an age when too much "connection" is done in social networks and not enough done over crumpets.

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Tea became the quintessentially Chinese drink during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), and a cultural touchstone in Japan a few hundred years later, but it didn't start being imported in bulk to Europe until 1610, when the Dutch brought in a modest shipment of the stuff. It wasn't an immediate hit: Despite its purported medicinal qualities, tea was very expensive in the 17th century, and at the time, Europe was in the throes of another caffeinated love affair—with coffee, which was cheaper.

During the next century, however, tea became Britain's iconic beverage. Cultural historian Tom Standage points out: "It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that almost nobody in Britain drank tea at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and nearly everybody did by the end of it." In his book A History of the World in Six Glasses, Standage outlines how tea became the essential British drink: It got an early boost from the Portuguese wife of Charles II, Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705), a tea fan who inspired aristocratic copycats to sip the beverage from tiny porcelain cups. The increasing power of the British East India Co., which began importing tea directly from China in the beginning of the 18th century, made tea much cheaper, too, so that it became a part of not just aristocratic life, but that of the lower classes as well. Tea warmed bellies even when there wasn't a hot meal on the table.

That's tea; what about the party? Tea has always had a feminine slant. In England, women were allowed in tea shops (like Thomas Twining's) and tea gardens, even though they were not welcome in coffeehouses. Tea was also prepared at home, often in drawing rooms, for small chatty gatherings. (I'm speculating about the chattiness, but if the purported quantity of tea consumed is to be believed—dozens of those tiny cupfuls—then I have to imagine the conversation was free-flowing.) The lady of the house would keep the tea locked in an often ornate tea caddy and, once her maid had brought hot water to the table, would prepare the tea for her guests. Hostesses expected propriety from their guests: Slurping was frowned upon, as was dumping saucer drippings back into a teacup. By the second half of the 18th century, the tea party became a test of an early-modern woman's savoir faire and also her household's good financial standing. Silver tongs and porcelain teapots (which were very likely imported from the Orient, along with the tea) did not come cheap. Some British families even chose to have portraits painted of themselves at tea, perhaps to highlight how well-off they were. Though fellow trading nations Holland, Portugal, and, eventually, Russia developed tea cultures, other major European powers—among them France, Germany, and Italy—remained rather unmoved by the beverage's appeal. To nondrinkers, tea could signify (misplaced) social aspiration: The historian Jean-Louis Flandrin quotes one French countess sniping about a relative: "He takes tea twice a week and he thinks himself the equal of a Locke or Newton."

Many American colonists had warmed to tea before the British did, adopting it soon after it was first brought to the colonies by Dutch traders in the second half of the 17th century. (The Dutch liked to take their tea in the afternoon, with sweets, like clove-scented theerandjes cookies.) Though it wasn't aboveboard, Americans often bought their tea from Dutch smugglers, on whose imports they paid no tariff, rather than paying full fare for British imports. The East India Co., stuck with a surplus of tea, pressured Parliament to act, and the British government passed the Tea Act in 1773. It was the culmination of a series of earlier colonial taxes on necessities like sugar, and it caused an uproar. The law allowed the British East India Co. to directly import tea from China to America and actually lowered the tariff on tea while increasing the enforceability of the company's monopoly on tea imports. The problem wasn't just that the colonists were being taxed without representation; it was that the British government was getting in the way of their under-the-table bargains on tea.

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