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Afternoon Teas And Receptions

WITH the ever-increasing luxury of the present day a new fashion has grown up; namely, that of giving frequent and expensive entertainments for a few people rather than large affairs for society in general. Thus many ladies now give a dozen handsome lunches and dinners to repay their social obligations and entertain their friends, where fifteen or twenty years ago they would have given three or four large soirées.

There are many advantages in the new system, and many drawbacks as well. The beauty, aesthetic and gustatory, of a modern feast is not to be denied, and has been described at some length in another part of this volume. But the tendency of these comparatively small reunions is to divide people into cliques and sets, to encourage the animal within us, to make us selfish, and to do away with the larger and more catholic gatherings which have their own charm, a charm apart from the aesthetic gratification of the senses which the modern dinner-table affords.

Let us lunch and dine, by all means, but let us also entertain in a more general way; otherwise we shall be apt to invite and be invited by the same people over and over again, excluding from our feasts the lame and halt whom the Bible bids us ask as our guests. The lame and halt, socially speaking, — who does not know them? Mr.---, a man with the divine spark of poetry in him, is one of them. He shall write verses when his heart is touched, cere perennius and his talk how full of thought, his wit how subtle and delicate! But he lives in a small old-fashioned house, and dines not, neither is he dined.

Mrs. is another of this fraternity. She has a large house and a sufficient income, but does not know how to entertain people, and fears to invite them lest they should be bored. Younger brothers and older sisters belong to those who are socially disabled so far as dinners are concerned. A dinner-party is necessarily very limited as to the number of guests; hence, only two, or at the utmost three, can be invited out of the same family. These will usually be the most eligible members of it; the handsomest daughter and the most agreeable son will be asked over and over again; papa and mamma, if they are quiet, dull people, will be left out in the cold altogether, unless they de-fend themselves by giving dull dinners of their own to those who may be counted upon to invite them in return.

Luckily there is one form of general entertainment which is still very popular, and in which even suburban lame ducks can find their account. Afternoon teas revived in England about forty years ago, and imported to this country soon afterward, are certainly a most admirable institution. What if the dissipation they afford is of the mildest type? It may be mild, but it is perennial. An afternoon tea is so cheap that anybody can afford to give one, and involves so little trouble and formality that even the most timid or the most lazy hostess need not shrink before the very diminutive lions it brings into her path. She need only provide tea, coffee or chocolate, with thin slices of bread and butter or sandwiches, bonbons and cake.

Indeed, some of the pleasantest five-o'clock teas are the most informal ones, where the lady of the house has all the tea-equipage in the drawing-room, placed on a little table beside her, and where she pours out the fragrant beverage for her friends as they drop in, two or three at a time. For an occasion of this sort it would be sufficient to provide sandwiches and cake to accompany the tea, and the invitations would be given out quite informally. They might either be verbal, or written on a lady's visiting-card; for a number of days at home, the dates could be written in or engraved, thus, —

Mrs. Tracy Trevelyan,

Three Gramercy Park.

Fridays in January and February.

If the hostess intends to receive on that day throughout the season, " Fridays " or " Friday is sufficient. Where a lady gives only one or two after-noon teas, or where a number of people are invited, the refreshments are on a somewhat more elaborate scale, but may still be simple if she prefers to have them so.

Many people who dine late in our large cities have five-o'clock tea served everyday, and are almost al-ways at home to friends at that hour. Even those who do not take it themselves, usually offer tea to callers. In this case, it is well to consult the wishes of the visitors before ordering it, since many persons prefer not to drink tea. The most approved method of serving it for a few guests, is to have the whole equipage brought in on a large tray and set before the hostess. The butler or maid lights the alcohol lamp under the kettle (in which the water should be already very hot) and the lady of the house makes the tea. Or it may be brought in, freshly made in the tea-pot. The tray should contain cups, saucers, spoons, doilies, plates, sugar-bowl, slop-bowl, cream-pitcher, thin slices of lemon, tea-pot, caddy and kettle. Muffins in a covered dish or buttered toast and cake may be passed by the servant, or handed on a " Curate's assistant." This is a little upright stand, with two or three shelves, each one large enough to hold a plate.

What a difference there is between the reception you will meet at one house and that accorded to you at another, even where the invitations are precisely alike and the preparations for receiving guests made on just the same scale!

Some people are so formal in their very natures, that they impart frigidity to all who approach them. Your backbone begins to straighten itself up at the very aspect of the servant who opens the door, whether he is a wooden footman or one of those preternaturally prim maid-servants who seem to have caught an inward starch from long contact with their grim mistresses.

If on entering the, parlor you find the furniture up-holstered in blue satin of a more than usual degree of slipperiness, it will all seem part of one general plan. You will only sit on the very edge of your chair, and as you receive your tea from the hands of another frozen menial you will wonder how the tea can keep hot under such chilling influences!

Of course the conversation will turn upon the weather (ón looking out of the window you observe that it has suddenly begun to snow), and will be extremely limited, for the guests will not be introduced to one another, and they will feel the gêne of their austere surroundings. The hostess is robed in satin, like her chairs, and her hair has been dressed by a hair-dresser. The solemn servant passes around marrons glacés, or candied rose-leaves; but how can one insult his dignity by receiving such childish trifles at his hands? None but the most candy-hardened school-girl would dare to touch the little trifling bon-bon tongs which surmount the sugary heap.

Slipping away from the congealing hospitality of this house, you go to another only a few blocks distant, and the sound of merry laughter greets your ear the moment that the door opens to admit you. Within, you find yourself, in a wide, spacious hall, through which you pass to a suite of three parlors. In each an open fire gives a cheerful look to the apartment, but the farthest is the centre of attraction. Here stands the tea-table, with a pretty girl sitting at either end pouring out tea and coffee. In this room also is the hostess, handsome, cordial, hospitable. Her hair, to be sure, is gray, but her heart does not match it, — d la Byron. She receives every guest with a cordial grasp of the hand, and her face is so beaming with kindliness and the true spirit of hospitality that every one feels himself sincerely welcomed. The busy hostess hardly sits still for a moment; she wishes to be sure that all her guests are amused and 'happy, that they are provided with tea and cake, and what is more important, that they have some one to talk to. Perhaps she has several lions among her company of the afternoon, and she wishes to see that all have a fair chance to make the acquaintance of these distinguished visitors,

This lady does not believe in the modern theory of non-introduction, although you will find in her drawing-room fashionable women and distinguished men, a brilliant and charming assembly, where every one feels at home, and accepts cordially the hostess's parting invitation to come next time. No, she does not live in Boston, this particular hostess, though no doubt the Hub can boast of some ladies who entertain with the same cordiality and grace.

The refreshments at an afternoon tea are so few and simple that they ought without peradventure to be the very best of their kind. If possible, the tea should be made upon the table. The old-fashioned method of putting the pot on the stove and allowing the leaves to steep, has long been condemned as unwholesome. Where only a few people are present a silver tea-ball may be used. This is immersed in a cup filled with boiling hot water. It is held there a moment or two until the tea is of the desired strength. For a larger number of guests, it is convenient to have a few spoonfuls of the dried leaves tied up beforehand, in little balls of cheesecloth. These can be placed in the tea-pot as needed and can be easily withdrawn. It is said that the hot water should never be allowed to stand on the leaves longer than three minutes, if one would avoid the development of tannin, which is both unpalatable and unwholesome. Where a large number of guests are expected, the tea and coffee may be in urns, kept warm by alcohol lamps, although it is better to use a large tea-pot, and to have fresh supplies of hot water brought in frequently.

Some people have the servants hand around cups of tea and coffee on a waiter, instead of pouring out these beverages themselves; but this method takes away half the charm and air of reality of the tea-drinking. The hostess herself cannot undertake to entertain her guests and pour tea too, except where very few people are present. She can usually, however, depute the duty to a daughter of the house, or bespeak beforehand the services of some other friend.

In the time of good Queen Anne they even went so far as to grind the coffee in public when the august sovereign gave an afternoon tea.

" For lo! the board with cups and spoons is crown'd,
The berries crackle, and the mill turns round;
On shining altars of Japan they raise
The silver lamp; the fiery spirits blaze;
From silver spouts the grateful liquors glide,
While China's earth receives the smoking tide:
At once they gratify their scent and taste,
And frequent cups prolong the rich repast."

POPE: Rape of the Lock.

The good queen evidently liked her beverages hot; and the modern hostess should remember that the tea and coffee should be hot, and not lukewarm. There should also be a plentiful supply of hot water, since it is the fashion to drink a very weak decoction of the fragrant herb, at these afternoon gatherings. Cream makes a wonderful improvement in the flavor of both tea and coffee.

If bread and butter are provided, the bread must be of wafer-like thinness, spread nicely with " the best of butter " and arranged sandwich fashion, with the crusts trimmed off. In summer, cooling drinks such as claret cup, fruit punch, orangeade or iced tea flavored with lemon, are often offered as well as hot tea. Ceylon and English Breakfast are now the favorite and fashionable varieties of tea, though Oolong and Japan teas still have their faithful adherents.

The little low five-o'clock tea-tables, with their dainty embroidered cloths, are so pretty and picturesque that it seems a thousand pities not to use them. But they will be found inconvenient, except on very small occasions, not only on account of their diminutive size, but because they are so low. A rather small table of the ordinary height may be substituted for the regulation five-o'clock tea-table; at this the hostess is not obliged to sit down every time that she pours out tea.

When cards are issued for only one or two afternoon teas, the refreshments are usually on a more elaborate scale, and often comprise bouillon and ice-cream. Oysters and salads belong properly to a reception; but afternoon teas and receptions melt into one another by imperceptible gradations, and the names are often used interchangeably.

Where a number of guests are expected, or where the occasion is a formal one, the table is set in the dining-room. It may either be bare, with ornamental centrepiece and doilies under the dishes, or it may be covered with a table-cloth. Flowers, candles, sandwiches, bonbons, cakes, are all arranged with decorative effect, while, the presence of the inevitable tea-equipage at one end, with chocolate or bouillon at the other, gives the air of friendly hospitality which makes these entertainments so popular. Hence assistant hostesses usually preside at the festive board, even at very elegant functions, where men-servants wait upon the guests. At an informal tea, if ice-cream or café frappé is given, one of the ladies may dispense it either from the dining-table or from a side-table.

According to the pleasant modern custom, a number of girls or young married women are invited to assist the lady of the house. These circulate among the guests, inviting them to come into the dining-room, and attending to their wants while there. They should not hesitate thus to extend the hospitality of the house even to those whom they do not know personally, since they represent the hostess.

It is well to have one or more servants in attendance also, even on informal occasions. More hot water will be constantly needed for the tea service, the soiled cups, saucers and plates must be taken away and replaced by fresh ones.

A débutante is usually introduced into society by an entertainment of this sort. Her name is engraved on the card of invitation, beneath that of her mother, and she stands at the left of the latter, who introduces the daughter to her friends, after shaking hands with them herself. Since people are coming and going constantly, at a reception,. both ladies usually remain at their post through-out the afternoon.

It is the fashion to send flowers to grace the coming-out tea of a débutante. If a girl is attractive and popular, or if her family have a large number of relatives and friends, the rooms are sometimes so filled with these offerings that they look like a florist's shop. Saturday is a favorite day for such receptions, since men are then usually at leisure. The girl friends who have assisted the young hostess, often remain for dinner, some young men, perhaps, being asked to meet them.

For a reception the hostess usually wears a handsome demi-toilet, silk, satin or velvet, made with a train, and cut down at the throat if the wearer chooses. But she never wears full evening dress, as this would be in very bad taste. The house is often handsomely decorated with flowers, and a dressing-room is thrown open for those ladies who may prefer to take off their outside wraps, a second. room being provided for the accommodation of gentlemen. The guests may, if they choose, wear handsome reception toilets, but never remove their bonnets unless they have been previously invited to receive with the hostess. As the same people often attend several receptions and teas, in the same afternoon, quite a variety of dress is worn, many ladies preferring to appear in the plain tailor-made street costumes that are now so fashionable.

Gentlemen wear formal morning or afternoon dress, as it is sometimes called, on all afternoon occasions; namely, black or dark frock-coat, with high waistcoat to match, dark or gray trousers, and scarf. At the present moment, the cut-away has returned to favor and is supplanting the frock-coat, to some extent. In summer greater liberty than formerly is now allowed in the matter of men's dress for the afternoon.

Men leave their overcoats, umbrellas, etc., in the hall, or in the dressing-room if one has been provided for their use. Their hats they may bring with them into the drawing-room if they prefer to do so. Modern custom however prescribes that the hat shall be left with the overcoat.

For a handsome reception at a city house, it is usual, in the winter or in rainy weather, to have an awning reaching from the front door to the curbstone, a strip of carpet, red velvet in most cases, being laid on the sidewalk and front door-steps. A man is in attendance, to open the doors of the carriages and to give duplicate numbers to the occupants and to the drivers, if many people are expected. Even when no checks are given he remains to call for the carriages when the guests leave, and to help the ladies get in. A servant stands in readiness to open the door of the house, so that people may be admitted without delay. He may receive the cards on a small salver, or the callers may lay them on the hall-table, where a tray is usually in readiness to receive them.

The custom of announcing guests is growing in favor in this country and is a very convenient one, especially at occasions of this sort, to which the hostess invites all her visiting acquaintance as well as her daughter's friends. Hence there may be a number of persons present with whose faces she is not familiar. The servant inquires the names of the visitors, then pre-cedes them to the drawing-room, where he makes the necessary announcement, " Mrs. Jones, Miss Jones," or whatever it may be.

The first time one hears one's own name shouted out in this way, in cockney accents, as " Mrs. 'All and Mrs. Helliott!" the effect is rather startling. But one soon becomes accustomed to it. Only a well-trained servant can do this thing properly, indeed some per-sons think it should not be attempted -by a woman. In the country or in a small town, where people all know each other, it would seem too formal to have the guests announced.

For a ceremonious reception in winter, the rooms are lighted by artificial light, the windows being darkened by shutters or blinds. If there is a band of musicians it is placed behind a leafy screen where it can discourse sweet music without being seen. The hostess formerly stood near the door, so that she could readily welcome her guests as they entered the drawing-room. This arrangement is going out of fashion, however, since it was found to expose the receiving party to drafts and to crowd the doorway. People do not usually remain very long at an occasion of this sort; half an hour's stay is sufficient to meet the requirements of politeness, but this is often prolonged to an hour or more, according to whether the guest is amused or not, and to the number of friends and acquaintances whom he happens to meet.

Mrs. Abbott Barclay will be at home on Tuesday, January eighteenth, from four to six o'clock, at Three hundred and one Commonwealth Avenue.

The above is a proper form for an invitation to a reception. The whole card may be engraved, or for an informal occasion the invitation may be written on a visiting card. It was formerly considered proper to use figures in an. invitation, for the day of the month, the hour, etc.; but the new fashion is to have all the numbers engraved in full, as in the card given above.

As has been said elsewhere, it is not strictly correct to put either " R. s. v. p." or " To meet Miss So and So " on an " at home " card; but it is often done now, custom and convenience sanctioning the solecism.

The word " kettledrum " is not used in invitations now, though for a time it was quite the rage to call every afternoon occasion by this name. A kafeeklatsch is the German name for afternoon tea or rather coffee drinking. It certainly has an admirably descriptive sound, — this title, — and conveys the idea of boundless talk, clatter of spoons, and the harm-less (?) scratch of gossip better than any of its predecessors.

( Originally Published 1911 )

Social Customs:
Children And How They Should Behave At The Table



Afternoon Teas And Receptions

Balls And Dances, Their Arrangements, Etc.

Etiquette Of The Ballroom

Musical Parties

Etiquette Of Weddings

Marriage Engagements And English Wedding Breakfasts


Read More Articles About: Social Customs

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