With Downton Abbey all the rage these days it seems that there’s been an increase in the amount of tea-related news that has to do with the show in some way or another. Which is probably not surprising given that the show is set in the upper crust of British society in the years before and after World War I.

Which is not quite the Edwardian era, a period of time generally marked by the reign of King Edward VII, who came on board in 1901 and who died in 1910, but it’s close. Close enough that if you’d like to know how tea might have been served in that time period you might turn to the Serving Afternoon Tea section of A Guide for Edwardian Servants, a 1908 book by the author Janet McKenzie Hill.

A Guide for Edwardian Servants (screen capture from site)

A Guide for Edwardian Servants (screen capture from site)

As the author notes, this is often “a simple and every-day occurrence,” though the photos of elaborate setting make one wonder otherwise. A listing of some of the favored foodstuffs follows, including the fairly standard wafers, cakes and sandwiches, as well as the likes of “hot bouillon with bread sticks or buttered rolls, hot toasted muffins or cassava cakes, nut, cress, or fanciful, sweet sandwiches.” The cook, it’s revealed, helps prepare all of these items, as one might expect. But it’s the “waitress” who “is responsible for the freshness of the tea, the temperature of the bouillon, tea, and hot muffins.”

As already mentioned, these affairs were supposed to be rather simple, but the rather in-depth listing of the equipment that’s required to pull things off again leads one to wonder. But I guess none of us can really get by in this life without a bouillon urn, bouillon cups and bouillon spoons, now that I think about it.

After all this comes a short section on the actual mechanics of putting on this “simple” affair. It’s a seemingly intricate set of instructions, but as the author concludes, “All this sounds arduous, but in reality, in houses where the maids are limited in number the callers of an afternoon are not numerically strong, and a sister, daughter, or friend of the hostess is usually present to help out.”

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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