Tea on the Road: The Tea Cart

Having left the Japanese teahouse and garden (see previous post) at Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion, we continued on through rose, Italian, blue and white, pansy, moonlight, and old fashioned gardens to the mansion part of the estate.

As mentioned in my last post, this 1886 Queen Anne-style building was a summer home for New York banker Frederick Ferris and his wife Mary Clark Thompson.
mansion 1-webDesigned by architect Francis Allen, the house was constructed of greystone and Medina sandstone and, as was popular in the 1880s, incorporated features of Gothic Revival, Eastlake, and Anglo-Japanese.mansion 2-webMary appreciated Asian art, collecting pieces for the estate, including green porcelain garden seats that were originally in the Japanese garden.

And although I don’t know whether it was original to the house or simply representative of the time period, there is a tea cart on the main floor of the house.tea cart-webDisplaying tea ware has a long history, beginning in the western world soon after Europeans were exposed to tea in the 1600s.

“Displaying tea ware was laden with symbolic meanings of social and/or decorative value,” and in the Netherlands, even some less wealthy households had specialized tea tables as early as the 1730s (Blondé and Ryckbosch 2015).

China closets showed off tea ware, and the idea of a china cabinet traveled with William and Mary from the Netherlands to England in the late 1600s–early 1700s.

According to a London magazine of 1744 it could cost more to maintain a fashionable tea table, with its expensive tea and utensils, than to keep two children and a nurse. (Faulkner 2003:91)

By the end of the 1700s, as seen in Dutch paintings, tea ware was finally used as tea ware more than functioning primarily as display (Maldini 2012), and by the early 1800s, tea was mainstream in the western world.

However, that didn’t mean that tea wasn’t a “thing.”

Afternoon tea parties were still fashionable in the late 1800s, and in the early 1900s, going to tea shops as well as enjoying tea outdoors or having picnics were popular activities—facilitated by the advent of the automobile!

Hence, a tea cart complete with tea set was very likely to have been used in this turn-of-the-century summer home. With the mansion’s huge wrap-around porch, a tea cart (also called tea wagon or trolley) would’ve been an easy way to bring afternoon tea to guests sitting outside and enjoying the view of the gardens.from porch-webThis particular cart has leaves that can be raised to form an entire tea table, which would have been handy if wheeled right out into one of the many gardens surrounding the house.in garden-webAlthough Mary was obviously so taken with Japanese tea gardens and teahouses that she had her own created on the grounds,teahouse2-webthis elegant tea set and cart reflect western tastes.teasetIn addition, their existence—in a large, well-appointed house, one of five owned by Frederick and Mary, surrounded by sumptuous gardens, fountains, waterways, statuary, and more—demonstrates anew that it’s always more than tea.

That “displaying tea ware . . . [is] laden with symbolic meanings of social and/or decorative value” (Blondé and Ryckbosch 2015).

And that, despite all of that, it’s also about hospitality, about simply sharing a cup of tea.

–Blondé, B., and W. Ryckbosch, “Arriving to a set table,” in Goods from the East, 1600–1800, ed. by M. Berg et al., Palgrove Macmillan, 2015.
–Faulkner, R., Tea: East & West, V&A Publications, London, 2003.
–Maldini, I., “Design history of European tea cups and saucers,” internship report, University Amsterdam, 2012.
–Sonnenberg Gardens, “Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion State Historic Park,” pamphlet, 2019.

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