Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Revolutionary Lady's Adieu to Her Tea-Table

In sorting through old posts recently, we've discovered several drafted during the past few months that somehow never got posted! Pray forgive the slight delay and the relative time lapse of some of them, but we hope you'll enjoy them nonetheless for their tardiness!

While Ashley was in Williamsburg in November for the conservation conference, I permitted myself a couple of hours off from research one afternoon to indulge in some of CW's special program offerings. One of these I was particularly keen to see, as it's a seasonal program that we've never before been lucky enough to catch. "The Polite Academy" explores the socio-cultural lives and roles of women in the colonial and early-Revolutionary capitol of Virginia. Using the domestic space of the parlor as its setting, four ladies in first person move through all of the graces and accomplishments any woman of gentility would be expected to demonstrate as a respectable member of polite society. From the proper serving and consumption of tea, to the admirable elocutionary exercises of poetry-reading, to the demonstration of musical talents like singing and playing an instrument, to deportment and dance, the ladies educated their twenty-first-century guests on nuances of the true art of being a lady in the mid-to-late eighteenth century.

"The Polite Academy" at Colonial Williamsburg

The discussions surrounding the ritualized tea ceremony were particularly fascinating. The ladies discussed the degree to which tea - and that includes the physical tea service and all of the accountrements necessary to serve a cup of tea, in addition to the actual tea leaves themselves - was very much a status symbol in colonial America. Serving tea was just as much about showing off one's ability to afford commodities like a tea pot, china cups, and a (locked) chest full of tea, as it was about demonstrating in a social setting one's carefully (and often expensively) acquired manners.

"The Polite Academy" at Colonial Williamsburg

When addressing the prickly social situation that arose when politics began to infringe on the female world of polite parlor manners, one of the ladies in the group offered to share this very clever poem, which was published in numerous newspapers across several colonies immediately following the Boston Tea Party. Though a woman couldn't make a public political statement, a subtle and highly symbolic change to her very English tea ceremony could speak just as loudly and passionately for the cause.

A Lady's Adieu to Her Tea-Table

Farewell the Tea-board with your gaudy attire,
Ye cups and ye saucers that I did admire;
To my cream pot and tongs I now bid adieu;
That pleasure's all fled that I once found in you.
Farewell pretty chest that so lately did shine,
With hyson and congo and best double fine;
Many a sweet moment by you I have sat,
Hearing girls and old maids to tattle and chat;
And the spruce coxcomb laugh at nothing at all,
Only some silly work that might happen to fall.
No more shall my teapot so generous be
In filling the cups with this pernicious tea,
For I'll fill it with water and drink out the same,
Before I'll lose Liberty that dearest name,
Because I am taught (and believe it is fact)
That our ruin is aimed at in the late act,
Of imposing a duty on all foreign Teas,
Which detestable stuff we can quit when we please.
Liberty's the Goddess that I do adore,
And I'll maintain her right until my last hour,
Before she shall part I will die in the cause,
For I'll never be govern'd by tyranny's laws.

If you'd like to read more about this fantastic program, check out this Colonial Williamsburg podcast, which features a lengthy and enlightening interview with the creator of "The Polite Academy."

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