A nice cup of tea
by Mel Robertson
A considerable number of people have a non-alcoholic drinking problem that may, or may not, be addictive. I refer to people who cannot decide if they prefer tea to coffee or vice versa. However, since there is no vice or anything "versa" involved, this problem has escaped the notice of talk-show people, the "politically correct" and the power seekers. Nonetheless, it can be a nagging problem depending on who is doing the nagging.
Both tea and coffee have varied in popularity over the centuries, and I have no intention of going into the history of either beverage. At present, much of the competition is based on advertising. As to coffee, we are told that coffee beans grown on one side of a certain mountain are superior to coffee beans grown elsewhere. TV ads promote it with grinning mules and men in supermarkets. For the computer-minded, the ultimate in cyberspace technique is the vision of young rising business executives hastening along Bay Street with a large plastic mug of coffee in one hand and their cellular phone in the other and talking about corporate take-overs that can be accomplished by the laptop computers they have strapped to their backs.
On the other hand, the promotion of tea is more subtle. A visit to any large store will reveal that tea can be purchased in cans or bottles (like pop), and comes in many flavours such as camomile, apple, lemon, mint, comfrey, etc., which titillates or nauseates the consumer. Exotic names such as Earl Grey, Souchon, Mandarin, etc., appeal to the "laid-back". All this tends to confuse the ordinary tea or coffee drinker, so I will confine this article to the consumption of tea in this area.
It is not known if our settlers preferred tea or coffee, or if indeed either was available at our early stores on a regular basis. It is known, however, that settlers who could not get tea or coffee made a beverage from ground barley that was similar to modern "Postum". The fact that tea was not always available is noted in old news items editors put in their papers every time area grocers
received a shipment of tea. This practice continued into the early 1900s and a typical one is that of December 1917 when the "Advance" announced, "J. Stephenson of Cathcart has received 300 Ibs. of tea at.40centsapound and 260 pounds of black tea at .32 cents a pound". The same paper noted that local charitable organizations were holding "Jelly Bazaars" in the "Tea Pot Restaurant" in Brantford that were designed to promote the donation of jelly to the Brantford General Hospital.
In earlier times, tea did not come in pound packages or little cup-sized packets. It came in small plywood boxes about three feet square. These were lined with silver paper and stamped all over with Chinese printing to guarantee their origin. Grocers emptied some of the tea into drawers under their counters and put the rest away in a dry place. When customers wanted tea, the grocer weighed it out and put it in a paper bag. In the home, tea was kept in a variety of "tea caddies" that graced most kitchen cupboards. Most tea was black, either with the leaves in it or as "gun-powder tea" where everything was ground up.
Black tea was the usual type, but green tea was available for special occasions. One of these special occasions involved the employment of weekly "Laundresses" in many local homes. This was not a "snob" thing, but rather a practice that benefited both the employer and the employee. As to the employers, the wives of many young area businessmen were deeply involved in school, civic or church organizations and, with the lack of telephone and motor cars, found it very hard to cope with the running of a household and the rearing of a young family. Consequently, the hiring of a "Laundress" to do the weekly wash was a great benefit to them. From the employee's side, there were a number of over-middle-age women who lived in rather isolated parts of the township whose families had grown and moved away and whose husbands had all-day jobs in Brantford or Woodstock. The lack of telephones and
motor cars made their lives rather lonely and they were only too pleased to work three or four days a week as "Laundresses" where they would have meals made for them and where they could keep in touch with local activities and news. The standard terms of employment for "Laundresses" was transportation to and from their homes, a full noon dinner and an afternoon tea that had to include green tea. Money involved was 25 cents. This may sound like ridiculous compensation for a day's work in the 1990s, but those were the terms requested and not dictated. We had two different "Laundresses* when T was a child and I can remember their jolly presence in the house once a week and the trips we made in our Ford car to pick up and deliver them. Both insisted on green tea. No one asked them why and Mother was only too pleased to provide it.
The term "tea party" or "tea meeting", if used in 1995, is usually meant to describe an old-fashioned, formal and rather fussy gathering of women who have met to discuss some out-of-date civic or religious problem. However, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, these terms were used to describe any event, other than a garden party or concert, that was sponsored by either women's or men's organizations.
Indeed, strictly male organizations such as the Grange, the Masons or the Orangemen were not the least embarrassed if the local editor described their meetings as "tea meetings". There were, of course, many local events that could be described as "tea parties" and "tennis teas" that graced the lawns of area parsonages, rectories and manses from July to late August around the turn of the century. Some were advertised as "Lavender Teas" or "Rose Teas" depending on what theme was to be followed and what flowers were at their best. At such teas, shrubs and bushes would be decorated with ribbons and the theme flowers. Little wooden tables with folding legs dotted the lawn, each equipped with a fancy linen cloth, linen napkins and bowls of flowers. Since there were no folding chairs, dining room chairs were brought from homes of the people involved. There was, of course, a head table where senior members of the sponsoring committee poured tea from silver pots and young ladies adorned in long summer dresses and big hats served the dainty cucumber or salmon sandwiches. Then, to add to the enjoyment, there would be a string quartet hidden behind the lilacs providing quiet music that would not interfere with conversation. Now and then there would be a female or male guest speaker. Admission to such teas was usually 10 cents and the local paper always published the amount of money taken in. Any collection over $25 indicated an outstanding success. Attendance at such "tea parties" was usually good as there were no motor cars to take women to other places, and many young families had "hired girls" or live-in unmarried "aunts" to look after the young children. Male attendance at such afternoon events was usually limited to bankers, clergymen and the occasional visiting "uncle" from the States. Any businessman who played "hookey" from his "8 to 6" job in order to support an afternoon "tea party" was soundly jeered by the more "macho" members of the community.
Many customs, some almost religious in nature, have grown up around preparation and consumption of tea. Some women have maintained that the tea kettle of boiling water must be taken to the tea pol while others have insisted, with equal fervour, that a good cup of tea could be produced only if the reverse of this procedure was practiced. Tea even got into marriage counseling books for young ladies who were hoping to make a good "catch" One bit of such advice was "never give a man a cold cup of tea". The offer of a good hot cup of tea was considered to be a sure way to encourage a suitable suitor while a cold cup of tea would discourage the unsuitable. With this advice in mind, I can imagine that if a young man got a real tongue-burner, he would feel that he was really "home free" and could start calling the young lady by her first name.
Other tea practices were not of a romantic nature for, at one time, it was thought to be "politically correct" to hold up one's little finger when drinking a cup of tea. This practice was roundly condemned in "genteel" circles. Jokes and cartoons made fun of this practice. One cartoon even went so far as to suggest that people who practiced it should attach a little Union Jack to the offending finger in order to honour the British Empire.
Of equal condemnation was the practice of "saucering" one's tea. This meant that if the tea was too hot, you poured it into your saucer and slurped it from there. The ultimate of tea drinking skill for young ladies was the ability to balance a cup of tea and a saucer plus a cucumber sandwich and a linen napkin while strolling rhythmically on A.D. Muir's lawn to the music of Andrew Messecar and the Burford Brass Band. At less formal tea parties, the art of "tea cup reading" was practiced. Some local women bragged about their skill in "tea cup reading" and would encourage other women to have their tea cups "read". In preparation for a 'reading", the tea cup was turned over on the saucer and revolved three times. Then he "reader" would assume a far-off, know-it-all look and would examine the tea leaves hat remained in the cup. Predictions usually depended on the "reader's" knowledge of he person whose cup was "read". One local 'reader" always ended her predictions with the words, 'You are going to get a passel". Mother always laughed at the word "passel" and we used it as a "family word" for years. This bit of advice was, of course, a guaranteed true prediction for everyone eventually receives a parcel of one sort or another. No great faith was placed in the art of "tea cup reading" but adults who were children when this was being done will recall the pleasure they got while watching a tea cup being "read".
Possibly the ultimate in tea drinking formality was the custom of ladies 70 or 80 years ago to have "a day at tome". Since there was none of the casual "dropping in" for a cup of coffee that is common today, women of many social backgrounds lad a designated "day at home" printed on their "calling cards". On this day, a woman would get into her best dress and prepare dainty sandwiches and cookies Silver tea pots were got out and everything was put on a "tea wagon" that could be wheeled in when the afternoon guests arrived. Mother's "day at home" was "second Fridays" and I can recall the friendly chatter in the front parlour and the fact that Emilie and I would usually be called in for a critical inspection and a few kind words.
"Days at home" would be considered social snobbery in 1995, but they were typical of a slower time when communities were more self-centered. Sabbath strictness ruled many homes every day of the week and lives were run accordingly. Locally, imported social customs were rigorously promoted by a number of young English girls who, coming here to be domestic servants, had married well-to-do young men and insisted on social practices they had experienced in English homes where they had been employed. Some of these women made such a fuss about social rigidity that they were called "The Duchess" all their lives.
The practice of tea parties was introduced to girls early in life for it was felt that the proper preparation, serving and consumption of tea was one of the "roles" women had to assume. Consequently, every little girl received a doll's tea service as soon as parents felt that she had reached an age where she would not hurl it at her brothers. Dolls' tea parties were standard games for little girls in which dolls would be lined up on any chairs that were available. "Cambrick tea",
that consisted of hot water and milk, was prepared. Then the customs of an adult "tea party" were followed.
Little boys were excluded from such parties, but I can recall on one occasion when I was about four, I was given a cup of "pearl tea" to ease a toothache. This consisted of hot milk, sugar and ginger root. It was a very effective cure for the toothache as its vile taste and resulting reaction took my mind completely off the offending tooth.
The importance of tea drinking in earlier times was reflected in the many gifts that surrounded it. The most important of these was the silver tea service that many parents gave their daughter when she married. Of lesser importance were other tea accessories. These included tea strainers, tea balls and slop dishes. The strainer was a little silver sieve that sat in a silver holder and was used to strain loose leaves from a cup of tea. The tea ball was a silver perforated ball which was filled with tea leaves and hung in the kettle while the tea was being "steeped". The slop bowl was a silver bowl into which cold tea was poured when a tea drinker had talked too much and let her cup get cold. The word "slop" had a number of rather nasty meanings when tea parties were in vogue. It was used by British sailors to describe their food. (It was used as a verb to describe any sort of spill, but its nastiest use was in pre-bathroom days when the contents of chamberpots
pails" every morning.) A much less expensive "tea" gift was the knitted "tea cozy". This was a little cover that was put on a pot of tea to keep the contents warm. Some women prided themselves on their skill in knit-ting. In fact, one local woman was so adept at making "tea cozies" that she knitted one for every local girl who got married. These were so beautifully designed and prepared that a few may still exist in older area homes.
And, so I seem to have come to the bottom of my "nice cup of tea". However, before I close, a couple of questions need answers. First, to dispel the impression that tea drinking is a purely feminine action, we should note that in every major conflict the drinking of tea has been a great morale booster for the toughest combatants. History shows that whenever there was a lull in fighting, soldiers would prepare a "brew-up" of tea. This was accomplished by putting a shovelful of sand or gravel in an old gasoline can, adding gasoline and using the resulting fire to "boil-up" a "cup of tea" that was consumed on the spot without any formality.
The other question is, "What do I prefer - tea or coffee?" The answer is that I enjoy either beverage as long as it is hot. However, I do feel from the amount of canned tea that is being consumed that the consumption of tea in summer has a greater cooling effect than coffee.