Tea Time at the Museum

By Jill Passmore, Visitor Experience Co-ordinator

Victorian Teas at the Museum, as we know them now, began my first summer at the Museum, 2003. A small team of volunteers who were involved with the Oshawa Historical Society’s Social Committee wanted to get this project off the ground with staff support; Linda Calder, Kay Murray, and Mary Ellen Cole took the lead. Later Kay and Mary Ellen would go on to receive the Volunteer of the Year award for their efforts with the teas.

Occasionally, the Museum held teas prior to this on a smaller scale. There was no continuity in dates, times and prices. One of the longstanding themes is Mother’s Day. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was customary for moms to receive complimentary admission and “an old fashioned gift from the Sydenham Country Store.” For the cost of regular admission, one would receive tea and scones in the garden from 1 – 5 pm. In 2001, a local trio of women called The Hamstrings provided entertainment. They would go on to perform at many Museum functions after this. As we moved into the second decade of the new millennium, the focus had changed to pay homage and celebrate moms and other special people in ones life, since family dynamics have changed so much in the last while. We do however like to feature historical Oshawa Moms. At place settings, we have highlighted women from the Henry, Guy, Robinson, McLaughlin, and Conant families with their photos and highlights of their lives.

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In my time at the Museum, I feel like we have tried every other theme for a tea as well. One year we tried monthly themed-teas. For example, a Snowflake Tea in January, Valentines in February. Each month we tried to match desserts and flowers to the designated theme. We have had Strawberry Socials, Mad Hatter Teas on a Friday the 13th and even a Mourning Tea during the first iteration of the Mourning After exhibit! We served funeral cakes instead of scones and were able to dye tablecloths black!

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Stories from the Homefront Tea, 2004

As time has passed, we have gotten quite proficient and our service and style has come a long way. This mean that as we offered a more elegant setting and catering (our own!), we were able to increase the cost of our Victorian Teas. In the early days, Museum staff would charge per item; snacks and drinks cost 40¢ for cookies, 50¢ for scones, 75¢ for lemonade and $1 for coffee, tea or herbal tea (and free refills!) Later the cost would increase to $5 for adults and $3.50 for children and by 2005, $10 for adults, $8 for members of the Oshawa Historical Society, and $4 for children. This price held steady until 2013 when the cost was raised to $15 for adults, $10 for OHS members and $7.50 for children. The price for tea at the Museum is very reasonable. A team of dedicated volunteers prepares all of the food and desserts (as much as possible), which are served on china settings, three-tiered plates, with linen tablecloths and napkins.

What kinds of things do we serve for tea? Our volunteers schooled me on how to prepare cream cheese and cucumber and watercress sandwiches on Wonder THIN white bread. Did you know that you can get a good three or four more sandwiches our of a loaf of bread if it’s sliced thinly? It’s true! Some of our staples include typical tea sandwiches – tuna salad, cream cheese and cucumber, egg salad; but we also incorporate seasonal specialties like cream cheese and cranberry on a green wrap, sliced for Christmas pinwheels, and ‘Coronation Chicken Salad’ that is said to have been served at Queen Victoria’s coronation.

In the early 2000s, after a few successful trial runs, the Museum began to serve weekly garden teas in the backyard of Henry house during the summer. In the summer of 2005, we hosted 156 people, 169 in 2006 and 116 in 2007. Like many things though, popularity is cyclical. We decided to begin offering summer teas, one a month in July and August, serving two sittings – one at 11:30 am and one at 1:30 pm, adding in dates and sittings as necessary.

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60th Anniversary Diamond Tea

Some of the more memorable events I have been on hand for are the Victory Tea we held for participants of the Stories from the Homefront project in 2004, and the Diamond Anniversary Tea, which celebrated the 60th Anniversary of the Oshawa Historical Society in 2017.

If you’ve never come for tea at the Museum before, I highly recommend it. We are currently booking for monthly Tea & Talks, held on the last Sunday of the month, and 2019 Christmas Teas.

Candle Making

Over the next two weeks the Museum is going to welcome many school children to participate in our ‘Day in the Life of a Victorian Child’ program. One of the components is a candle making demonstration. It always amazes me when kids these days are fascinated by the simplicity of the pioneer and Victorian lifestyle. They find it so hard to believe you couldn’t just flip a switch and voila! They also have a hard time with the fact that kids had A LOT of chores to do. To make a decent sized candle, it would take 40 dips into wax. Can you imagine any child these days staying still long enough to dip candles 40 times?!

Candles have been around for millennia. People began to settle North America and fireplaces were the norm in all small cottages and cabins. As houses got larger, there was a need for portable light. Settlers would make their own wicking using the fluff from milkweed pods. They would twist it together until it created something akin to yarn or thin rope. Tallow from sheep and beef was used for wax. They wicking was tied onto a stick and dipped into a pot of melted tallow and water. This is known as the hand dipped method. However, tallow candles smelled quite bad and often brought rodents and other small pests into the house because they were attracted to the smell. Eventually when paraffin wax became available, it was used.

As more settlers arrived, small villages grew and sometimes a store would be opened where the imported candle molds could be purchased. Occasionally a tinsmith in the area would make the molds as well. The wick used in these molds could be bought at the general store. The wick was thread through the holes and tied around the twigs, making sure to tie a knot at the end to prevent seepage of wax. The melted tallow was poured into each section of the mold.

Eventually homes began using oil lamps as they became available at local shops or through catalogues. I’m fairly certain that the children were glad not to spend half a day dipping candles anymore!

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