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Primary Source of the Month
Family of Five at Tea, c. 17651770
by I. L. La Fargue, Holland
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Dressed in their finery, this family of five is seated for tea in an extravagant parlor. Tea, at the time, was still a costly commodity. Served in fashionable porcelain cups and with lumps of expensive sugar, the practice of afternoon tea was reserved for the wealthy. Set on a low table, the serving pieces (like the teapot and creamer seen above) were silver, while cups, saucers, and sugar bowls were made of porcelain. Proper tea equipage also included slop bowls, tongs, teaspoons, and trays. The manner in which a table was set told a lot about the host's finances, taste, and status. The presiding lady poured the tea, serving the highest-ranking guest first. The conversation, or "chat," was light and "pleasant". Gossiping, discussing business affairs, courting, celebrating, and card-playing were all proper entertainments. Proper execution of the tea ceremony showed a lady had good breeding and proper deportment.
Notice the plush carpets, gilded mirrors, and elaborate wallpaper of the parlor. This portrait announces the family's wealth and importance. However, it is the family's display of genteel refinement which signals their worthiness of respect. In the eighteenth century, proper deportment was considered the highest form of civilized life. Keeping good posture, the gentleman sits with his back straight, acceptably positioning his arm in his unbuttoned waistcoat. The lady does the same with the help of stays. Even the children maintain proper posture. From an early age, colonial children were taught to wear stays and learned rules of etiquette from tutors and books.
As a public icon of the family, this portrait was carefully staged in order to portray the family's moral virtue by way of proper deportment. American colonists, observing these European social standards in newspapers and paintings like the one above, sought to emulate the behavior for themselves. Even as they sought to split with their mother country, American colonists still regarded Europe as a model of refinement. Though this painting is from Holland, it shows how wealthy American colonists would have behaved.