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A quick rundown on manners appropriate to tea in 1906

"At Home" Tea

This sort of affair is known as an "At Home" tea. Arguably, we're doing it wrong, because we're not always at home on Saturdays at 3pm to receive guests (on the other hand, we're known to do this tea every year about the same time), and in fact we're hosting this event in a hotel; hey, we're roleplaying, right? Anyway, the following is cribbed from The Afternoon Tea Book by Michael Smith, who was culinary adviser to "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "The Duchess of Duke Street."

It is a frequent practice for the mistress of a house to set aside a day every week, fortnight, or month, as the case may be, on which to receive callers. Whenever this is known to be the case, casual and non-intimate visitors should make it a rule to call on that day . . .

When an 'At Home' day has been fixed and cards issued, as, for example:

Mrs. A---- At Home Saturdays, 4-7p.m.

Afternoon Tea should be provided, fresh supplies, with thin bread-and-butter, fancy pastries, cakes, etc. being brought in as other guests arrive.


Some entertainment is generally provided, usually music . . . friends contribute the music, and it is well to make a little plan or programme beforehand . . . The instrumental pieces chosen on these occasions should not be long ones, and a good break should be made between each song, solo or recitation, for conversation, people going more to these entertainments to meet their friends and have a chat than for the sake of the music. Introductions are not the rule at 'At Homes', but they can be made when there is any necessity. Tea is not served in the drawing-room . . . but at a buffet in the dining-room . . .

We have a piano, which is a bit out of tune, but bearable. If you'd care to play, we'd be delighted to have you do so, but please bring your own sheet music. Most of what we have are the old books from lessons of aeons past.

Buffet Manners

Although I like to assume that everyone is familiar with good manners at a buffet, Gordon tells me I was brought up in an antiquated way. Therefore, I'll reiterate these just in case.

When one eats from a buffet, one places foodstuffs - cakes, scones, sandwiches, etc., as well as condiments such as butter, devon cream, and jam - on one's plate. One also takes one of each proper utensil, along with the plate of food, to one's seating place (a clever lady may charm a true gentleman into bringing her a cup of tea after she's seated, but that's entirely between consenting adults, wouldn't you say?). One doesn't place spreads on the bread, scones, and whatnot at the buffet, because this prevents other guests from having access to the food. That would be rude, and you wouldn't want to be rude, would you? (Even if you would, roleplay politesse.) If this were a English country home with a full staff of servants, we'd have small tea-tables at which each guest would have his own tea impedimentia, including jams, and the servants would pour the tea for you. Alas, we're simply land-poor southerners making a feeble pretense. Bear with us.

Pouring Tea

Tea will be served with a number of possible additions: milk, lemon, sugar, and saccharine (yes, it's period, really!) tablets. What goes into the teacup first is a matter of great debate. I'm not going to make a pronouncement about it, either. Just pour it all into the cup neatly, and we're happy.

Saucers vs. Dessert Dishes

There is a difference between a saucer and a dessert dish. If you can't tell the difference, ask your hostess. This does matter. For one thing, using a saucer holds your cup in place when you hold it, whereas a cup will slide all over on a dessert dish. Also, if your cup tips and you spill a little tea when you're using a saucer, it will land in the saucer rather than all over the 96-year-old hardwood floor. Finally, some people use a saucer to cool their tea - pouring it from their cup into the saucer, and back. I will not comment on whether this constitutes good table manners or not.

How to Eat Scones

And now, the topic we've all been waiting for . . . how to eat scones. No, really, according to Michael Smith there is a correct way! Remember, start with all your condiments on your plate. There will be too many people present to do this at the buffet without causing a riot. Do not cause a riot at the tea.

Take a tea knife and split the scone in half across its girth . . . Then spread a little butter on an area of the scone's crumb face, the size you might expect to bite elegantly, top this with as much or as little jam as you wish and eat just that mouthful. Proceed in this manner until there is no scone, butter, or jam left on your plate.

When clotted cream [devonshire cream] is served . . . this is put on in blobs, after the jam (whether you take butter and cream is a matter of personal taste and diet consciousness).

Have Fun!

Finally, remember, we're all here to have fun. We won't have a panel of judges watching to see whether you eat your scone "right" . . . but a few good manners go a long way towards having fun!

  • If you'd like information about Edwardian costuming click here.
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