Steeped in tradition, tea's allure endures

Series: Hinsdale 150 | Story 25

An invitation to a tea time may be misinterpreted in today's Hinsdale.

In the village's nascent era, however, tea parties were a way for women, in particular, to enjoy fellowship and enlightening discussions in a paternalistic society, according to Leslie Goddard, a historian known for her portrayals of figures from the past.

As part of the celebration of Hinsdale 150th anniversary, Goddard will present the program "Elegant Indulgence: History and Rituals of Afternoon Tea" from 7 to 8:30 p.m. June 26 at the Hinsdale Public Library (see Page 22 for details).

"In the late 19th century, there aren't a lot of places where women can go to socialize," Goddard said. "There were taverns, but that's not where unescorted women would go."

So home became the setting for socializing, and tea was a light, easy refreshment to prepare for small gatherings.

"And tea, going all the way back to British times, still carried this connotation of being elegant and fancy," she related.

Goddard acknowledged knowing little about tea's legacy in the States beyond the Boston Tea Party before she was asked to give a presentation in another village. She discovered the internationally consumed beverage played a important role locally.

"The more I got into it, the more interested I got," she said. "Tea parties turned out to be a really important part of that whole story."

During her research, Goddard learned that Hinsdale's first merchants catered to tea's rising popularity.

"I was looking at an ad from Fox & Davis, an early grocery store in Hinsdale, and you could find tea kettles and other items likely sold to the matrons of Hinsdale for tea gatherings," she said.

Fox Brothers in neighboring Fullersburg sold British porcelain teapots, creamers and sugar bowls. The evolution of women's clothing also provides clues, as Goddard noticed the contrast between Hinsdale High School's 1883 female graduates' tightly fitted dresses and the garb donned by their elders.

"Women entertaining at home started wearing tea gowns, loose fitting, something you'd wear only in the house," she said. "It affected fashion because women were regularly meeting in the houses, and you don't want to get all gussied up just to stay home. Tea gowns became this thing."

The customary dinner time had gotten later as the Industrial Revolution altered work rhythms, so the afternoon tea also helped tide over people's stomachs.

"What I really focus on is, in the Victorian age, this whole idea of stopping in late afternoon, you have a couple of little sandwiches and sweets and a cup of tea," she said. "I trace the history of afternoon tea through what Hinsdale women might have been doing."

The practice continued into the 20th century, with groups like the Hinsdale Woman's Club hosting a 1914 tea while hearing a lecture on prominent men and women of England.

Later public tea rooms began popping up, The rustic Spinning Wheel eatery that used to sit along Ogden Avenue just west of the Tri-State Tollway marketed itself as a restaurant and tea room. Following a decline over the last century, Goddard said there's been a resurgence of interest in tea gatherings.

"It hearkens back to a simpler, slower way of life," she said. "It seems like something we still crave to this day."

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean