Tea has always been an important commodity in the United States. It is valuable import, and even contributed to the fight for independence from the British in the 18th century. Perhaps it was their English descent, but Americans still had a demand for tea, even after declaring independence. While it did not provide a caffeine boost like coffee, tea lasted longer. One pound of tea can pour 180 six-ounce cups, while a pound of coffee can only pour 50. With the widespread enjoyment of tea in the United States, ultimately came the phenomenon of “taking tea”.
Tea was typically consumed with snacks as a smaller, fourth meal of the day after dinner. However, tea in America, like in Europe, was mostly consumed by the upper-class. Aristocratic women enjoyed entertaining guests with elegant parties, accompanied by elaborate tea sets and refined manners. Hosting and serving tea at these gatherings were some of the only tasks upper-class women did not delegate to servants. It soon became a symbol of femininity and domesticity to properly prepare tea to entertain guests.
A receipt dated March 25th, 1858, of cutlery purchases made by Mrs. Abraham Deyo in Poughkeepsie, NY, indicates her purchase of a tea set. There is no indication of who made the set, or what it is made of, but it is the most expensive item on the receipt, costing $3.50. Today, that would be $118.06. Mrs. Abraham Deyo’s name was Margaret T. Deyo, she married her her first cousin in 1812, and they had four children. Together, they lived in New Paltz, until Abraham relocated them to Plattekill, NY, where he served as supervisor. He later went on to serve in the Senate, and upon his death, he left their house in New Paltz to his son, Abraham Jr. Compared to the average family at this time, the Deyos were fairly wealthy. This can be inferred from the fact that an oil painting was created of Margaret in 1844, about 15 years before the date on the receipt. In the painting, she is wearing an elegant headpiece and large earrings. It is entirely possible that Margaret had the time and the financial means to entertain guests with tea parties.
At this time, tea sets expanded beyond teapots, cups and saucers. A typical tea set in the 19th century included other items like spoon holders, cream pitchers, slop bowls, and sugar bowls. Each of these pieces served a distinct purpose and helps to enrich the experience of drinking tea.
Obviously, the central component of a tea set is the teapot. Tea sets were originally made from porcelain, but as time passed, silver teapots became more common. The metal allowed the water inside the teapot to stay hot longer, so they were praised by tea drinkers. They were much easier to manufacture in the United States, as porcelain crafts were most refined in Asia during this time. When they were first used in Europe and the United States, teapots were small, but by the middle of the 18th century, teapots could hold dozens of cups of tea.
Another important part of tea sets is saucers. The idea of saucers originated in China, when the daughter of a military officer found her cups of tea to be too hot to place on a table, so she asked a local potter to create a plate small enough for the cup to sit on. Another part of the tea set that most people do not recognize is the slop bowl. Slop bowls held the water used to brew tea, and for drinkers to pour cold tea in before refilling their cup with fresh, hot tea. They also held the remains at the bottom of the teacup, so they would not affect the next cup.
As an important part of aristocratic life in the 19th century, tea sets included numerous different pieces, each of which provides a simple function. However, without one of these pieces, teatime would not be the same. Women in the 19th century enjoyed using these sets to entertain guests and friends, and without a single one of these pieces, it would be impossible for the set to act as a whole.
Hornung, Clarence Pearson. A Source Book of Antiques and Jewelry Designs, Containing over 3800 Engravings of Victorian Americana, Including Jewelry, Silverware, Clocks, Cutlery, Glassware, Musical Instruments, Etc., Etc., Etc., by Clarence P. Hornung. G. Braziller, 1968.