Except at a wedding, the function strictly understood by the word reception went out of fashion, in New York at least, during the reign of Queen Victoria, and its survivor is a public or semi-public affair presided over by a committee, and is a serious, rather than a merely social event.
The very word reception brings to mind an aggregation of personages, very formal, very dressed up, very pompous, and very learned, among whom the ordinary mortal can not do other than wander helplessly in the labyrinth of the specialists jargon. Art critics on a varnishing day reception, are sure to dwell on the effect of a new technique, and the comment of most of us, to whom a painting ought to look like a picture, is fatal. Equally fatal to meet an explorer and not know where or what he explored; or to meet a celebrated author and not have the least idea whether he wrote detective stories or expounded Taoism. On the other hand it is certainly discouraging after studying up on the latest Cretan excavations in order to talk intelligently to Professor Diggs, to be pigeon-holed for the afternoon beside Mrs. Newmother whose interest in discovery is limited to a new tooth in babys head.
Yet the difference between a reception and a tea is one of atmosphere only, like the difference in furnishing twin houses. One is enveloped in the heavy gloom of the mid-Victorian period, the other is light and alluring in the fashion of to-day.
A tea, even though it be formal, is nevertheless friendly and inviting. One does not go in church clothes nor with ceremonious manner; but in an informal and every-day spirit, to see ones friends and be seen by them.
The afternoon tea with dancing is usually given to bring out a daughter, or to present a new daughter-in-law. The invitations are the same whether one hundred or two thousand are sent out. For instance:
As invitations to formal teas of this sort are sent to the hostess general visiting list, and very big houses are comparatively few, a ballroom is nearly always engaged at a hotel. Many hotels have a big and a small ballroom, and unless ones acquaintance is enormous the smaller room is preferable.
Too much space for too few people gives an effect of emptiness which always is suggestive of failure; also one must not forget that an undecorated room needs more people to make it look trimmed than one in which the floral decoration is lavish. On the other hand, a crush is very disagreeable, even though it always gives the effect of success.
The arrangements are not as elaborate as for a ball. At most a screen of palms behind which the musicians sit (unless they sit in a gallery), perhaps a few festoons of green here and there, and the débutantes own flowers banked on tables where she stands to receive, form as much decoration as is ever attempted.
Whether in a public ballroom or a private drawing-room, the curtains over the windows are drawn and the lights lighted as if for a ball in the evening. If the tea is at a private house there is no awning unless it rains, but there is a chauffeur or coachman at the curb to open motor doors, and a butler, or caterers man, to open the door of the house before any one has time to ring.
Guests as they arrive are announced either by the hostess own butler or a caterers announcer. The hostess receives everyone as at a ball; if she and her daughter are for the moment standing alone, the new arrival, if a friend, stands talking with them until a newer arrival takes his or her place.
At a formal tea, the tea-table is exactly like that at a wedding reception, in that it is a large table set as a buffet, and is always in charge of the caterers men, or the hostess own butler or waitress and assistants. It is never presided over by deputy hostesses.
Only tea, bouillon, chocolate, bread and cakes are served. There can be all sorts of sandwiches, hot biscuits, crumpets, muffins, sliced cake and little cakes in every variety that a cook or caterer can devisewhatever can come under the head of bread and cake is admissible; but nothing else, or it becomes a reception, and not a tea. At the end of the table or on a separate table near by, there are bowls or pitchers of orangeade or lemonade or punch (meaning in these days something cold that has fruit juice in it) for the dancers, exactly as at a ball.
Guests go to the table and help themselves to their own selection of bread and cakes. The chocolate, already poured into cups and with whipped cream on top, is passed on a tray by a servant. Tea also poured into cups, not mixed but accompanied by a small pitcher of cream, bowl of sugar, and dish of lemon, is also passed on a tray. A guest taking her plate of food in one hand and her tea or chocolate in the other, finds herself a chair somewhere, if possible, near a table, so that she can take her tea without discomfort.
Unless the person for whom the tea is given is such a celebrity that the tea becomes a reception, the hostess does not stand at the door, but merely near it so that anyone coming in may easily find her. The ordinary afternoon tea given for one reason or another is, in winter, merely and literally, being at home on a specified afternoon with the blinds and curtains drawn, the room lighted as at night, a fire burning and a large tea-table spread in the dining-room or a small one near the hearth. An afternoon tea in summer is the same, except that artificial light is never used, and the table is most often on a veranda.
This is Best Societys favorite form of invitation. It is used on nearly every occasion whether there is to be music or a distinguished visitor, or whether a hostess has merely an inclination to see her friends. She writes on her personal visiting card: Do come in on Friday for a cup of tea and hear Ellwin play, or Farrish sing, or to meet Senator West, or Lady X. Or even more informally: I have not seen you for so long.
Invitations to a tea of this description are never general. A hostess asks either none but close friends, or at most her dining list; sometimes this sort of a tea is so small that she sits behind her own tea-tableexactly as she does every afternoon.
But if the tea is of any size, from twenty upwards, the table is set in the dining-room and two intimate friends of the hostess pour tea at one end, and chocolate at the other. The ladies who pour are always especially invited beforehand and always wear afternoon dresses, with hats, of course, as distinguished from the street clothes of other guests. As soon as a hostess decides to give a tea, she selects two friends for this duty who are, in her opinion, decorative in appearance and also who (this is very important) can be counted on for gracious manners to everyone and under all circumstances.
It does not matter if a guest going into the dining-room for a cup of tea or chocolate does not know the deputy hostesses who are pouring. It is perfectly correct for a stranger to say May I have a cup of tea?
If the latter, she deluges it with hot water, and again watching for the guests negative or approval, adds cream or lemon or sugar. Or, preferring chocolate, the guest perhaps goes to the other end of the table and asks for a cup of chocolate. The table hostess at that end also says Certainly, and pours out chocolate. If she is surrounded with people, she smiles as she hands it out, and that is all. But if she is unoccupied and her momentary guest by courtesy is alone, it is merest good manners on her part to make a few pleasant remarks. Very likely when asked for chocolate she says: How nice of you! I have been feeling very neglected at my end. Everyone seems to prefer tea. Whereupon the guest ventures that people are afraid of chocolate because it is so fattening or so hot. After an observation or two about the weather, or the beauty of the china or how good the little cakes look, or the sandwiches taste, the guest finishes her chocolate.
If the table hostess is still unoccupied the guest smiles and slightly nods Good-by, but if the others attention has been called upon by someone else, she who has finished her chocolate, leaves unnoticed.
If another lady coming into the dining-room is an acquaintance of one of the table hostesses, the new visitor draws up a chair, if there is room, and drinks her tea or chocolate at the table. But as soon as she has finished, she should give her place up to a newer arrival. Or perhaps a friend appears, and the two take their tea together over in another part of the room, or at vacant places farther down the table. The tea-table is not set with places; but at a table where ladies are pouring, and especially at a tea that is informal, a number of chairs are usually ready to be drawn up for those who like to take their tea at the table.
In many cities, strangers who find themselves together in the house of a friend in common, always talk. In New York smart people always do at dinners or luncheons, but never at a general entertainment. Their cordiality to a stranger would depend largely upon the informal, or intimate, quality of the tea party; it would depend on who the stranger might be, and who the New Yorker. Mrs. Worldly would never dream of speaking to anyoneno matter whomif it could be avoided. Mrs. Kindhart on the other hand, talks to everyone, everywhere and always. Mrs. Kindharts position is as good as Mrs. Worldlys every bit, but perhaps she can be more relaxed; not being the conspicuous hostess that Mrs. Worldly is, she is not so besieged by position-makers and invitation-seekers. Perhaps Mrs. Worldly, finding that nearly every one who approaches her wants something, has come instinctively to avoid each new approach.
The every-day afternoon tea table is familiar to everyone; there is not the slightest difference in its service whether in the tiny bandbox house of the newest bride, or in the drawing-room of Mrs. Worldly of Great Estates, except that in the little house the tray is brought in by a womanoften a picture in appearance and appointmentinstead of a butler with one or two footmen in his wake. In either case a table is placed in front of the hostess. A tea-table is usually of the drop-leaf variety because it is more easily moved than a solid one. There are really no correct dimensions; any small table is suitable. It ought not to be so high that the hostess seems submerged behind it, nor so small as to be overhung by the tea tray and easily knocked over. It is usually between 24 and 26 inches wide and from 27 to 36 inches long, or it may be oval or oblong. A double-decked table that has its second deck above the main table is not good because the tea tray perched on the upper deck is neither graceful nor convenient. In proper serving, not only of tea but of cold drinks of all sorts, even where a quantity of bottles, pitchers and glasses need space, everything should be brought on a tray and not trundled in on a tea-wagon!
A cloth must always be first placed on the table, before putting down the tray. The tea cloth may be a yard, a yard and a half, or two yards square. It may barely cover the table, or it may hang half a yard over each edge. A yard and a quarter is the average size. A tea cloth can be colored, but the conventional one is of white linen, with little or much white needlework or lace, or both.
On this is put a tray big enough to hold everything except the plates of food. The tray may be a massive silver one that requires a footman with strong arms to lift it, or it may be of Sheffield or merely of effectively lacquered tin. In any case, on it should be: a kettle which ought to be already boiling, with a spirit lamp under it, an empty teapot, a caddy of tea, a tea strainer and slop bowl, cream pitcher and sugar bowl, and, on a glass dish, lemon in slices. A pile of cups and saucers and a stack of little tea plates, all to match, with a napkin (about 12 inches square, hem-stitched or edged to match the tea cloth) folded on each of the plates, like the filling of a layer cake, complete the paraphernalia. Each plate is lifted off with its own napkin. Then on the tea-table, back of the tray, or on the shelves of a separate curate, a stand made of three small shelves, each just big enough for one good-sized plate, are always two, usually three, varieties of cake and hot breads.
The top dish on the curate should be a covered one, and holds hot bread of some sort; the two lower dishes may be covered or not, according to whether the additional food is hot or cold; the second dish usually holds sandwiches, and the third cake. Or perhaps all the dishes hold cake; little fancy cakes for instance, and pastries and slices of layer cakes. Many prefer a simpler diet, and have bread and butter, or toasted crackers, supplemented by plain cookies. Others pile the curate until it literally staggers, under pastries and cream cakes and sandwiches of pâté de foie gras or mayonnaise. Others, again, like marmalade, or jam, or honey on bread and butter or on buttered toast or muffins. This necessitates little butter knives and a dish of jam added to the already overloaded tea tray.
Selection of afternoon tea food is entirely a matter of whim, and new food-fads sweep through communities. For a few months at a time, everyone, whether in a private house or a country club, will eat nothing but English muffins and jam, then suddenly they like only toasted cheese crackers, or Sally Lunn, or chocolate cake with whipped cream on top. The present fad of a certain group in New York is bacon and toast sandwiches and fresh hot gingerbread. Let it be hoped for the sake of the small household that it will die out rather than become epidemic, since the gingerbread must be baked every afternoon, and the toast and bacon are two other items that come from a range.
Sandwiches for afternoon tea as well as for all collations, are made by buttering the end of the loaf, spreading on the filling and then cutting off the prepared slice as thin as possible. A second slice, unspread, makes the other side of the sandwich. When it is put together, the crust is either cut off leaving a square and the square again divided diagonally into two triangular sandwiches, or the sandwich is cut into shape with a regular cutter. In other words, a party sandwich is not the sort of sandwich to eator orderwhen hungry!
The tea served to a lady who lives alone and cares for only one dish of eatables would naturally eliminate the other two. But if a visitor is received, the servant on duty should, without being told, at once bring in at least another dish and an additional cup, saucer, plate and napkin.
Afternoon tea at a very large house party or where especially invited people are expected for tea, should include two plates of hot food such as toast or hot biscuits split open and buttered, toasted and buttered English muffins, or crumplets, corn muffins or hot gingerbread. Two cold plates should contain cookies or fancy cakes, and perhaps a layer cake. In hot weather, in place of one of the hot dishes, there should be pâté or lettuce sandwiches, and always a choice of hot or iced tea, or perhaps iced coffee or chocolate frappé, but rarely if ever, anything else.
As tea is the one meal of intimate conversation, a servant never comes to the room at tea-time unless rung for, to bring fresh water or additional china or food, or to take away used dishes. When the tray and curate are brought in, individual tables, usually glass topped and very small and low, are put beside each of the guests, and the servant then withdraws. The hostess herself makes the tea and pours it. Those who sit near enough to her put out their hands for their cup-and-saucer. If any ladies are sitting farther off, and a gentleman is present, he, of course, rises and takes the tea from the hostess to the guest. He also then passes the curate, afterward putting it back where it belongs and resuming his seat. If no gentleman is present, a lady gets up and takes her own tea which the hostess hands her, carries it to her own little individual table, comes back, takes a plate and napkin, helps herself to what she likes and goes to her place.
As said above, if jam is to be eaten on toast or bread, there must be little butter knives to spread it with. Each guest in taking her plate helps herself to toast and jam and a knife and carries her plate over to her own little table. She then carries her cup of tea to her table and sits down comfortably to drink it. If there are no little tables, she either draws her chair up to the tea-table, or manages as best she can to balance plate, cup and saucer on her lapa very difficult feat!
In fact, the hostess who, providing no individual tables, expects her guest to balance knife, fork, jam, cream cake, plate and cup and saucer, all on her knees, should choose her friends in the circus rather than in society.
The garden party is merely an afternoon tea out of doors. It may be as elaborate as a sit-down wedding breakfast or as simple as a miniature strawberry festival. At an elaborate one (in the rainy section of our country) a tent or marquise with sides that can be easily drawn up in fine weather and dropped in rain, and with a good dancing floor, is often put up on the lawn or next to the veranda, so that in case of storm people will not be obliged to go out of doors. The orchestra is placed within or near open sides of the tent, so that it can be heard on the lawn and veranda as well as where they are dancing. Or instead of a tea with dancing, if most of the guests are to be older, there may be a concert or other form of professional entertainment.
On the lawn there are usually several huge bright-colored umbrella tents, and under each a table and a group of chairs, and here and there numerous small tables and chairs. For, although the afternoon tea is always put in the dining-room footmen or maids carry varieties of food out on large trays to the lawn, and the guests hold plates on their knees and stand glasses on tables nearby.
At a garden party the food is often much more prodigal than at a tea in town. Sometimes it is as elaborate as at a wedding reception. In addition to hot tea and chocolate, there is either iced coffee or a very melted café parfait, or frosted chocolate in cups. There are also pitchers of various drinks that have rather mysterious ingredients, but are all very much iced and embellished with crushed fruits and mint leaves. There are often berries with cream, especially in strawberry season, on an estate that prides itself on those of its own growing, as well as the inevitable array of fancy sandwiches and cakes.
At teas and musicales and all entertainments where the hostess herself is obliged to stand at the door, her husband or a daughter (if the hostess is old enough, and lucky enough to have one) or else a sister or a very close friend, should look after the guests, to see that any who are strangers are not helplessly wandering about alone, and that elderly ladies are given seats if there is to be a performance, or to show any other courtesies that devolve upon a hostess.
The atmosphere of hospitality is something very intangible, and yet nothing is more actually feltor missed. There are certain houses that seem to radiate warmth like an open wood fire, there are others that suggest an arrival by wireless at the North Pole, even though a much brighter actual fire may be burning on the hearth in the drawing-room of the second than of the first. Some people have the gift of hospitality; others whose intentions are just as kind and whose houses are perfection in luxury of appointments, seem to petrify every approach. Such people appearing at a picnic color the entire scene with the blue light of their austerity. Such people are usually not masters, but slaves, of etiquette. Their chief concern is whether this is correct, or whether that is properly done, or is this person or that such an one as they care to know? They seem, like Hermione (Don Marquiss heroine), to be anxiously asking themselves, Have I failed to-day, or have I not?
Introspective people who are fearful of others, fearful of themselves, are never successfully popular hosts or hostesses. If you for instance, are one of these, if you are really afraid of knowing some one who might some day prove unpleasant, if you are such a snob that you cant take people at their face value, then why make the effort to bother with people at all? Why not shut your front door tight and pull down the blinds and, sitting before a mirror in your own drawing-room, order tea for two?