“Tea for the Society” is being hosted by a local couple on Aug. 24 to benefit the Windham Historical Society. Contributed photo

If you were a housewife living in Windham in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, chances are you would have had your share of tea parties in your day. These relatively economical affairs were a wonderful way to entertain friends and catch up on neighborhood news and they were very popular with women of the time.

Legend has it that the practice of afternoon tea was started by a wealthy friend of Queen Victoria of England, Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, in the 1840s. She considered noon meals rather skimpy and found herself suffering from a “sinking feeling” by late afternoon. She began the custom by having her servants sneak tea and bread into her bedchamber, but later began inviting friends to join her in more formal tea socials.

These fairly elaborate get-togethers would offer guests a variety of small cakes, tiny sandwiches and assorted teas. The table would be decorated with delicate flower arrangements, fine china and silver flatware. In the darker, cold weather months, candelabras would be added to provide some extra light. Over time, other members of society began having teas of their own, especially after Queen Victoria herself started attending the events.

Tea parties in America were most prominent in the Gilded Age, when wealthy aristocrats had lavish events that required a number of servers to tend to the party guests. Servants were only allowed into the parties to serve and to remove and replace plates and silverware when called upon. This was because gossip flowed freely at these gatherings and the ladies didn’t want the servants overhearing the tales they had to tell. It was said that love and scandal were the best sweeteners at teas of the time.

Soon the practice of afternoon tea spread to more ordinary folk. Local women would have taken out their best dishes, linens and flatware to set a beautiful table for their friends. Flowers from their gardens would enhance the settings. The fare was much the same as their wealthier counterparts would have served; tea sandwiches, tea cakes, scones, bonbons, cookies and strawberries and cream were among the many favorites. On warm days, lemonade might have been added to the menu and sometimes cordials and brandy would have been a pleasant accompaniment.

Here in Windham, Stonehedge, the home of Dr. Sidney Branson, was sometimes the site of wonderful tea parties hosted by his wife. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, teas were sometimes held at the Bodge House on Chute Road, which was the Historical Society’s headquarters back then. The Bodge House had an incredible herb garden and the dried herbs from the garden were perfect for making delicious teas.

Nowadays, teas are beginning to make a comeback. Women are realizing they are the ideal setting for small celebrations with friends. Birthday parties, bridal and baby showers and retirement parties are all wonderful occasions to celebrate with friends over tea.

If you think you would enjoy attending an old-fashioned tea party that will take you back in time to quieter days, where pleasantries were the norm and conversation was light, you may want to consider the upcoming Tea for the Society fundraising event being presented by the Windham Historical Society at the home of Maria and Roy Clark, 339 Windham Center Road, on Saturday, Aug. 24.

A traditional high tea meal will be served from noon to 3 p.m. The cost is $20 per person. Seating is limited. To reserve a place at the table, call either Historical Society member Haley Pal at 892-7139 or the Windham Historical Society at 892-1433. Please note that the house is not handicap-accessible.

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