We often forget that Colonial America was immersed in the tea ritual on a scale equal to that of their English cousins and, consequently, tea tables were necessary furnishings in the fine homes located in major port cities.
As European furniture makers immigrated to the colonies, they set up shops in Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Charleston where they crafted and sold copies of British and Chinese tea tables to prominent families.
I was reminded of this industry recently when I took advantage of a splendid fall day to explore the tea history of Colonial Williamsburg. I have visited this historic treasure chest many times over the years but always in the company of friends or family members. That day, solo and unencumbered, I lingered to chat with guides and read descriptive signage to my heart’s content.
My two goals were to visit the George Wythe house and then peruse the myriad tea things found in the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum,located on the edge of the historic district.
My wife and I recently purchased a home in Kentucky modeled after the Wythe house. Perhaps the most handsome colonial house in Williamsburg, the two-story brick residence is believed to have been designed in the mid-1750s by George Wythe’s father-in-law, the surveyor, builder and planter Richard Taliaferro.
Wythe mentored both Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay in the study of law. In 1779, he joined the College of William & Mary faculty to become the first law professor in the United States.
General George Washington made the Wythe house his headquarters during the Battle of Yorktown. So, yes, Washington slept here.
DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Musuem
A visit to the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum should be on every tea lover’s to-do list. Their extensive exhibits include countless tea artifacts which will fascinate you for hours. I want to share two significant tea tables found in their collection.
Some of the first American–made tea tables were simply wooden trays positioned on stands. Later versions — such as this Massachusetts tea table on display in the collection — were made with fixed tops whose high molded edges gave the illusion of the earlier tray form. The tapered molding helped contain the expensive ceramics that were used while serving and drinking tea. The cabriole legs were inspired by Chinese tea tables.
Mahogany Tea Table, Boston, 1750
The table shown above originally belonged to Daniel Shute, the first minister of the South Hingham Massachusetts Church, and delegate to the 1780 Massachusetts Constitutional Convention that ratified the federal constitution. I can imagine the pastor’s family gathered around this table on the 17th of December, 1773, discussing the rebellious actions which took place the prior evening only a few miles north in Boston Harbor.
Until 1720, rectangular tea tables were the most common sort, but after that date, round tables with tilting tops became more usual.
The hinged top was designed to allow the table to be stored in a corner when it was not in use. As guests arrived for tea, the table would be brought to the center of the room where the tea things would be assembled.
This large tilting tea table (left) was originally owned by merchant Daniel Barraud (b.1725) of Norfolk and later Smithfield, Virginia.
The table is attributed to Norfolk because of its history and the similarity of its turned shaft to those found on a number of other tables and stands with Norfolk associations.
Founded in 1680, Norfolk supported a large and healthy cabinetmaking community by the third quarter of the 18th century.
Lastly, I share an image of a child’s tea set from the colonial era, which is a part of the vast exhibit of porcelain and pottery on display. Judging from its pristine condition, this set was not much-used. The exhibit included this script from a Boston newspaper advertisement placed two years prior to The Boston tea rebellion:
For Sale: Several complete Tea-Table Sets of Children’s cream-colored Toys. Boston News-Letter November 28, 1771.
Children’s Tea Set, 18th century
Read more about the history of tea in American culture in A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson. Benjamin Press.