The infusing of those magic leaves of the Camellia sinensis bush has been going on for a long time – over 5,000 years according to some historical records and archeological digs. They were not only capable of transforming water into a cup of flavorful aromatic liquid, but they brought folks together in a very social way. Long before social media sites like Twitter and long before there were hashtags, there were regular gatherings, tea ceremonies, and special occasions celebrated with tea. These very often took place in tea rooms. The original social media (as stated by the author of an inspiring article I saw online recently)!
An Historic Chinese Tea Room
The Heming Teahouse is part of the history and culture of China and remains a favorite with locals even now, serving only locally grown green teas that are made with hot water poured from special long-spouted copper pots. The Chinese game of mahjong, very popular also here in the U.S. these days, and open conversation (tea houses have always been one of the few places in China where people could speak freely, making them targets of shutdowns during times of unrest) are still ongoing in this teahouse that has been around well over a century. It has seen the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, a Cultural Revolution, and rioting in 1989. Chats while sipping tea were and are often their only way of exchanging opinions on life around them. No Twitter. No Facebook. This teahouse and others remain unchanged as the world around them changes faster and faster. And that is another aspect of their continuing appeal.
Tea Rooms Take Over Europe
Tea came to The Netherlands and France in the 1600s and shortly thereafter to England. But tea rooms didn’t begin their take-over as a social venue until the late 1880s. Tea was still too expensive for casual consumption until the early 1800s and having tea at home was considered more normal. People would also take turns hosting afternoon tea for their neighbors who would come to call and partake in the front parlor, set up especially to receive guests (see my article here).
As tea prices came down, however, a change occurred. Hotels began setting up special tea rooms and offering tea service there, usually in the late afternoon. It was a way to build up business by offering a social venue for many single and even married women to gather in a public place in a respectable manner. Elegance was the byword. Good manners and polite conversation were expected. But a bit of gossip, sharing of domestic information (servant problems, recipes, issues with the male elements of their lives, etc.), and even daring to discuss politics, foreign relations, and other matters about which they were not supposed to “worry their pretty little heads” were also spoken of. Again, no Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, etc., for such exchanges. Just lots of “face time.” Add in some dancing as men began attending these tea functions (hey, they go wherever female companionship can be found), and the social aspect was complete.
These days tea rooms dominate Europe, with France being a top country for such gathering places. The U.S. picked up on the trend at places like The Ritz in Boston and The Plaza in New York back in the late 1880s to early 1900s, but today the country lags behind in tea room numbers. People are too busy tweeting and skyping to sit still long enough for a nice cuppa and a chat.
You can still toss aside that laptop, iPhone, computer tablet, etc., and go to a physical tea room to enjoy the real thing. Time to get social!
See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.
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