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Is There Honey Still for Tea?

Afternoon tea is becoming increasingly popular. The highly acclaimed British TV series Downtown Abbey shows the Crawley family gathered in the drawing room drinking tea from delicate china tea cups and nibbling on tiny sandwiches and fancy cakes. It is said that Anna Duchess of Bedford, who was a Lady in Waiting to Queen Victoria, started the tradition as a way to stave of hunger pangs during the long gap between lunch and dinner. She would have a cup of tea and a light snack in her boudoir in the late afternoon. Soon she invited friends to join her and the tradition grew from there.

As afternoon tea was seen as an informal affair, unlike dinner when women were expected to wear corseted dresses and jewelry, a woman wanted a garment she could feel comfortable in while still being presentable in the company of her friends. The introduction of the tea gown during the 1870's filled the need perfectly. Loose fitting and without the need for corsets, it was the perfect garment.

Afternoon tea became a national tradition, the subject of poetry, and very much part of English life. Evoking this quintessentially English practice, a homesick Rupert Brook famously wrote from Berlin “Stands the Church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea?” -

Nowadays, we are more likely to have afternoon tea in a hotel or teashop, and take the opportunity to dress up in a hat and frock for the occasion. The tradition has endured, even though these days most British people don't drop everything at 3pm and have tea. It's something we like to do for a special occasion, for example for Mother's Day or as a Birthday treat at a Country House or hotel.

Since coming to the USA and eventually becoming an antique dealer, I have had the opportunity to talk with many of my customers about the lovely tradition of afternoon tea. Modern embellishments to the ceremony include offering champagne at grander affairs, and re-purposing the event for a wedding shower or similar celebration. These can include themes, for example roses, or a color like cobalt blue. Everyone brings a cup and saucer along the theme as a present to the hostess; or the hostess may provide them as favors for her guests.

I have a large range of cup and saucers from $5 to $50; averaging $12-15. A tea party for 6-8 people is a very accessible and delightful event – fun to plan and fun to enjoy!

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