This week marks the passing of the wonderful actor Geoffrey Baylden, who played the eponymous Catweazle in that brilliant TV show from my childhood, but this post is not about that form of sorcery. Rather, it is about drinking out of saucers.
I was sharing a cup of tea with a friend the other day and he told me his grandfather used to drink tea from his saucer.
Often, one hears about the “Victorian” habit of drinking tea from one’s saucer. This caused me to wonder about the timing.
This friend is similar in age to me, so I did the maths.
My grandfathers were both born in the 1920’s. Sure, I’m the oldest child of an oldest child on one side, so I tend to have ‘younger’ antecedents, but even so, Queen Victoria died in 1901, so I doubt that my friend’s grandfather reached proper tea drinking age* in Victorian times.
So, time to reach for Google.
As usual, Google has a whole bunch of people saying things without quoting sources, so having read “they drank tea out of saucers in Victorian Times” a bajillion times I looked for evidence
The image above of the Duke of Penthievre – a descendant of Louis XIV of France and his mistress- and his family drinking (chocolate) from a saucer is from 1760. That’s the year King George III ascended the throne.
“George III:, which one was he?”, I hear you ask. Yes, it’s the mad one, but he didn’t get mad enough to make him any different from most monarchs until later in life. He’s also the one that got into a squabble with the American Colonies over tea and taxation, which lead to tea overboard, bad spelling and Kim Kardashian, so he does have a lot to answer for. He also eventually died, and was succeeded by his son, William (IV) who ate and drank and drugged himself to death . Let’s not forget that William married Adelaide (of Saxe-Meningen) , after whom my home town and therefore our Queen Adelaide blend is named, so he did help our cause in that small way. Anyway, after he expired, his brother George (IV) got the gig, and after his fatal run-in with asthma, his niece, Princess Victoria of Kent was enthroned in 1837.
So, the pictorial evidence is three unhealthy kings and 80 years away from Queen Victoria, and French. It’s also chocolate, but let’s not worry about that.
There is a famous anecdote about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson discussing politics and Washington mentioning that tea could be poured into a saucer, but many historians suggest that Jefferson was in France at the time so the conversation didn’t happen. Perhaps he was sipping tea with the Duke of Penthievre. Anyway, there is now a phrase in US politics called the ‘Senatorial Saucer’, the idea being that the process of taking legislation though the Senate ‘cools’ the issue, in the same way as pouring tea in a saucer cools it down.
Even though the phrase probably did not arise from Washington and Jefferson, it is contained in an 1871 letter from constitutional law professor Francis Lieber to (future) US President James A. Garfield – and, hey wait, that’s Victorian times.
Let’s back up a bit. A saucer is called a saucer because it was designed to hold sauce. yes, it used to be a deeper dish with higher sides.
The picture shows one from about 1700.
It wasn’t always part of a tea service until the 1800s. Even then, it’s unclear whether it was there to catch the drips, for decoration , to rest one’s spoon upon or to drink from.
I’ve searched through academic papers on tea drinking, Victorian and
otherwise, and not found much. And then I happened upon a Project Gutenberg** ebook about 18th century tea drinking etiquette.
This is what it has to say:
“Pictures show male and female guests holding both cup and saucer or just the cup. An English satirical print, The Old Maid, published in 1777, was the only illustration found that depicted an individual using a dish for tea, or, to be exact, a saucer. In the 18th century a dish of tea was in reality a cup of tea, for the word “dish” meant a cup or vessel used for drinking as well as a utensil to hold food at meals. A play on this word is evident in the following exchange reported by Philip Fithian between himself and Mrs. Carter, the mistress of Nomini Hall, one October forenoon in 1773: “Shall I help you, Mr. Fithian, to a Dish of Coffee?—I choose a deep Plate, if you please Ma’am, & Milk.” The above suggests that the practice of saucer sipping, while it may have been common among the general public, was frowned upon by polite society… According to Peter Kalm, “when the English women [that is, of English descent] drank tea, they never poured it out of the cup into the saucer to cool it, but drank it as hot as it came from the teapot.” Later in the century another naturalist, C. F. Volney, also noted that “very hot tea” was “beloved by Americans of English descent.” From this it would appear that “dish of tea” was an expression rather than a way of drinking tea in the 18th century. “
So, I think it’s fair to say that drinking tea from saucers has been with us for a while, but it’s not really “Victorian” as such.
For the record, my friend and I drank out tea from mugs we found in a cupboard. No saucery required.
*Obviously, the phrase “proper tea drinking age” does not imply that there is anything wrong with starting babies on tea at birth. Rather, it refers to the age of being old enough to choose one’s own drinking vessel and variety of tea.
** Under the terms of using material from Project Gutenberg, I am reproducing the following sentence “This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere in the United States and most other parts of the world at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.org. If you are not located in the United States, you’ll have to check the laws of the country where you are located before using this ebook” The entire ebook is at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/46775/46775-h/46775-h.htm