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Two women and a girl seated at a table set for afternoon tea
Three generations enjoying afternoon tea in 1964. From the Toni Frissell Collection, Prints and Photographs Division

A Celebration Tea For Mother’s Day

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Mother’s Day is fast approaching, falling on Sunday, May 14th in the U.S. this year. If you’ve already cycled through giving flowers, chocolates, and similar traditional gifts, why not hold a Mother’s Day tea? Like many British people, I grew up experiencing a mid-afternoon tea break as a widespread institution at home and at work. Usually, this daily habit was just a quick mug of tea (always hot, never iced!) and a “biscuit” or cookie, but on special occasions, it would be an entire spread complete with an elegant tea service, dainty sandwiches, and cakes. For Mother’s Day, that full-fledged version of a tea could be an activity involving the whole family, or a way to honor a group of women together. Whether you go for a fancy tea with all the trimmings, or an informal, intimate one, we hope you’ll find something to suit you and the mothers, grandmothers and other women in your lives.

Mother and two young sons sitting at a table with tea cups
Jane White with sons Lewis and Maynard seated at dining table with teacups, 1902.
Prints and Photographs.

If you’d like to organize a Mother’s Day tea party, Library collections are full of useful ideas and resources. First, a little on the history of tea and tea parties. An article titled “The Story of ‘the Cup That Cheers” outlines both, and explains how the tradition of afternoon tea began in the mid-19th century when the Duchess of Bedford invited friends to join her for a light meal to counteract “a sinking feeling” caused by pre-dinner hunger pangs. Tea-related images in the Prints and Photographs Division are a great way to help kids understand the global background and long history of tea drinking, far removed from peckish British aristocrats and fancy cakes. These beautiful Japanese woodblock prints from 1772 and 1816 and pictures of tea plantations in China, Japan and Sri Lanka document the tea plant’s origins and importance in Asia. Photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries show the important social role that tea drinking and tea parties played in very different settings. Images show groups enjoying tea in London, Japan, World War 1 Belgium and France, Washington D.C., and California.

A Japanese woodblock print showing a woman and children at a tea party, 1901.
A Japanese woodblock print showing a woman and children enjoying a meal together, 1801.
Prints and Photographs.

Where to start as you plan your own tea party? A traditional menu would include an assortment of sandwiches, scones, cakes, and cookies, with any other extras that sound appealing. Digitized books in the collections are a mine of information, especially if you’d like to give your gathering an old-fashioned vibe. Here are just a few of the available options:

  • Pages 13 – 36 of Tea-Blending As A Fine Art (1896) detail the incredible varieties of tea grown, describing more than forty kinds, with pictures of various parts of the plant.
  • A whole chapter of Ultra Select Dishes for Afternoon Teas (1913) is devoted to “fancy sandwiches”, along with advice on the best kind of bread, and how to make flavored butter (from page 23).
  • Salads and Sandwiches (1917) is full of “tempting dishes that require very little in the way of materials but are deliciously eatable”. General instructions are on page 21. Ideas for salad sandwiches begin on page 141, for sweet ones on page 157, and for “substantial” versions on page 173.
  • Party Eats (1923) suggests keeping an afternoon tea shelf at the ready to allow for “impromptu hospitality”. See page 12 for details.
  • Pages 11- 13 of What To Serve At Parties (1922) are all about afternoon tea. There are instructions on how to make and serve the drink, and some frankly rather bizarre sandwich suggestions. I wouldn’t fancy fillings like baked beans mashed with salad dressing, or cooked fig paste and marshmallows, but if you feel differently, this is the chapter for you!
  • The Pillsbury Cook Book (1923) has a delicious-sounding recipe for strawberry shortcake on page 30.

    Cover image of the book Ultra Select Dishes for Afternoon Teas
    Cover image of Ultra Select Dishes for Afternoon Teas

Historic newspapers are another great source for recipes and ideas for your tea party. Below are some suggestions for sweet treats from the 1950s and 1960s:

Groups of woman seated at tea tables in a Florida tea garden, 1923.
Jewel Box Tea Garden, Tampa, Florida, 1923. Prints and Photographs

However you celebrate on May 14th, the Informal Learning Team wishes you a wonderful time. If you do hold an afternoon tea, cut the crusts off the sandwiches, indulge your sweet tooth, drink tea out of the prettiest cups you can find (extended pinky optional), and savor every bite. Happy Mother’s Day!

The picture featured at the top of the post is the work of photographer Toni Frissell, and can be viewed here

Note: An earlier version of this post quoted information from the Library’s catalog that subject experts have since determined is inaccurate. The caption for the 1801 woodblock print and the catalog have been corrected.

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