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Posts Tagged ‘British customs’

I love to listen to Fresh Air when I am walking my dog. On March 13, I had a most delightful listen when Terry Gross interviewed Lucy Worsley, the author of If Walls Could Talk: An intimate History of the Home. This interview came almost a year after the book was introduced in the UK. The video series was also shown on BBC last fall. As is often the case, I am among the last to know.

I listened to Terry’s interview with Lucy and was mesmerized. First, a bit about Ms. Worsley and her work:

Lucy Worsley works as the chief curator in several palatial buildings in London, including Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London. In contrast, she lives in what she calls a “normal, boring modern flat.”

The differences between her home and her workplace inspired Worsley to research the history of the home, which she details in her new book If Walls Could Talk. The book answers questions like: Why did the flushing toilet take two centuries to catch on? Why were kitchens cut off from the rest of a home? And did strangers really share beds as recently as a century ago? (Yes, they did.) – If Walls Could Talk

This video provides a perfect introduction to the book:

In Austenonly, Julie Wakefield discusses the evolution of the kitchen.  Click here to read her excellent post, The Georgian Kitchen.

I was struck by the evolution of the bedroom. Until quite recently in historic terms, there were not enough rooms in a house to provide a separate room for sleeping. The bedroom was a crowded and semi-public space. A bed was for sleeping; people had sex elsewhere.  In medieval times, the family often shared their bedroom with people they did not know. It wasn’t until Georgian times that a couple began to expect privacy as they slept. Even then, children were expected to share a bed.

18th century woodcut of a bundling couple.

Parents were realistic about the hot blood coursing through a courting couple’s veins and their need to be together.  Considering that a couple could not marry until they could afford to set up house, the average bride and groom to be had to wait years before they were wedded. Bundling was considered a sensible alternative to an amorous man and woman going off to a shed or field to follow their biological instincts. It was a custom followed by the lower levels (certainly not by the upper classes, where a woman’s chaste reputation was highly prized) and practiced in rural areas of England through the 18th century.

The practice was called “bundling” because the young man and young lady were each fully clothed, each had a separate set of linens, and the couple was usually separated by a board or bolster. Since all was done openly, with family members often helping the young woman by knotting her securely in her clothes, it was assumed that such courtships would remain chaste; and, quite often, they did.

But, youngsters then were no different from youngsters today, and temptation was not always fully resisted. As the numbers of premarital pregnancies rose in the 18th century, some people maintained that bundling was at least partially to blame. And, as homes were gradually being equipped with improved lighting, parlor stoves, and comfortable furniture, bundling gradually faded from practice. By the early 1800’s only couples in the most remote rural areas were still courting beneath a quilt. – The Curious Courtship Practice Known as Bundling

A bundling couple. He lies on top of the bed, she is under the covers. Image @History.org

After a night spent in bed together, the young couple did not have to marry (unless the woman somehow became pregnant). Bundling was a way of getting to know each other better and to see if they were compatible. Ms. Worsley identified the practice as a level of supervision by the family. This practice was not fool-proof, however.

Although sex was theoretically not involved, the practice coincided with a huge increase in premarital pregnancy. By the end of the century, 1/3 of all brides were pregnant by the time they reached the altar: The History of Courtship

Image @Fresh Vintage. Bundling was practiced in the U.S. a long time after the custom died in the U.K. Click on image to enlarge.

As a means of saving money, travelers would opt to share a bed. In some inns, a bundling board was used to separate the strangers. This poem describes bundling in quite some detail. In the U.S., the Amish and Mennonites practiced bundling well into the 20th century and, it is said, even today.

THE BUNDLING BAG
Where might young lovers better be,
Than right at home in bed?
Some giddy youth might care disdain,
And occasionally break the enchanted chain;
But most kept faith, ’tis said.
Some folks think it quite a risk,
But others make calm reflection:
We have men as husbands for our girls to get,
That they then might have naught to fret.
So few youngsters raised objection.
The bundling bag was just the thing
For young folks “on the go;”
It made matters safe, for man and maid;
Old folks retired, quite unafraid.
All these things are truly so. – Little Known Facts about Bundling in the New World, by A. Monroe Aurand, Jr.

Lucy Worsley

More on the topic: If you are as fascinated with this topic as I am, click on the links below to learn more about this custom in both Great Britain and the U.S.

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Tea is always served by the host/hostess or a friend, never by servants. Tea is never poured out, then passed several cups at a time, the way coffee may be, because it cools very quickly. Instead, it is always taken by the guest directly from the hands of the pourer.” – Etiquette Scholar

The ceremony of making tea is almost always included in costume dramas like Downton Abbey or a Jane Austen film, such as Emma. When Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham invited her daughter-in-law, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), to the Dower House for tea in Downton Abbey, the arranged time was most likely at four o’clock in the afternoon.

 

Cora and the Dowager Countess sit down to tea

In one particular scene, the two women entered the drawing room in which a small table had been laid out with an elaborate tea set, fine china, and silver spoons. An assortment of tiny sandwiches, cookies, and scones were arranged upon a beautiful batttenburg lace tablecloth that covered the table. Low tea (an Edwardian dowager would never have said high tea) was meant to blunt the appetite before dinner.

The duchess pours boiling water over the tea leaves in the tea pot

A tea ceremony provided an intimate setting between the hostess and her guests, for it was the hostess who prepared and served the tea, catering to each guest and handing them their custom-prepared tea one cup at a time. In this time honored ritual, one of the most important questions the dowager would ask was: “Would you care for weak tea or strong tea?” Cora’s preference would guide the Countess in the next stage of tea preparation, for if she said “strong tea,” then the Dowager would pour the tea as she had prepared it into Cora’s cup. Had Cora said “weak tea”, the Countess would pour a smaller quantitiy of the brew into the china cup, then top it off with hot water.

Cora eats a crustless sandwich as her mother-in-law prepares the tea

The Dowager would then ask her guest how much milk and sugar to add. She would have poured boiling water over the tea leaves in a tea pot, and steeped the leaves for three minutes, all the while conversing with her guests. At this point the water was no longer boiling. Then the Countess would pour in the milk. (If she poured it in first, she would have found it difficult to judge the strength of the tea by its color.) Hudson, the butler in Upstairs, Downstairs, said about pouring milk into tea: “Those of us downstairs put the milk in first, while those upstairs put the milk in last.”

In this instance, the Dowager leaves her guest in the middle of serving tea, a faux pas

History of Low Tea

On September 25, 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded: “did send for a cupp of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drank before.” By June 1667, tea was considered to be a healthy drink. One day Pepys arrived home to find his wife making tea, which his apothecary had found good for her cold.

Emma, 1996 (with Kate Beckinsale). Emma and Harriet drink tea during Mrs. Elton's first visit

Samuel Johnson was a self-described “hardened and shameless tea drinker, who has, for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea muses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and with tea welcomes the morning.” His chronicler James Boswell observed that “It was perfectly normal for him to drink sixteen cups in very quick succession, and I suppose no person ever enjoyed with more relisht the infusion of that fragrant leaf than did Johnson.”

Silver tea set by Odiot, Paris, circa 1880. Image @A.Pash and Sons, Mayfair

Until the 1760’s, only the rich could afford teapots, which were made of silver. Then in 1765 Queen Charlotte commissioned Josiah Wedgwood to create a tea service made from his quality cream colored earthenware, which he named Queen’s Ware (with the Queen’s permission, of course) and gave to her as a gift. From that moment on he was the Queen’s potter. Wedgwood’s creamware was thin, attractive and durable. After receiving the Queen’s patronage, his firm became quite famous. The attractive new tableware quickly became popular, and by 1775 other manufacturers, including those on the Continent, had widely copied Wedgwood, imitating Queensware and creating increasingly fanciful teapots. It is said that this tableware was instrumental in spreading the popularity of tea.

Wedgwood Queensware, c. 1790. Image @Christies

In 1840, the Duchess of Bedford began serving tea with refreshments in the afternoon to appease her appetite before dinner, and the custom of afternoon tea, or low tea, took off. To read more about drinking tea between the 18th and mid-19th centuries, read my post about Tea in the Regency Era.

Some interesting facts about tea:

  • Notice, this is a change: The difference between high tea and low tea: Low, or afternoon, tea is served at four o’clock with light snacks, such as sandwiches, cookies, and scones. High tea is a full meal served with tea, including meat, bread, side dishes and dessert on a table of regular height. Hence high tea.

16th century tea bowl, Korea

  • Tea cups at first were fashioned after Chinese bowls without handles or saucers. In the mid 1750-s, a handle was added to prevent ladies from burning their fingers.
  • A saucer was once a small dish for sauce. During the Dowager Countess’s day, it was acceptable to pour tea into a cup’s saucer to cool the beverage before drinking it.
  • In the late 17th century, a lady would lay her spoon across the top of her cup to signal that she was through drinking. Other signals included turning the cup upside down, or tapping the spoon against the side of the cup.
  • Filling the cup with tea almost to the rim is considered a faux pas.

"Might I give you this cup?" The Dowager hands her tea to Moseley while visiting Matthew Crawley.

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