The high tea party and old maidsThe high tea party and old maids
You could throw a genealogy-themed tea party in the Victorian style or any style that you prefer. The high tea party and old maids' genealogy tea parties are growing in popularity again in Sacramento, with a holistic health orientation or 'slant'. Old maids’ tea parties are back.
Genealogy is social history (and personal history), and a genealogy or DNA-driven genealogy tea party is in keeping with the theme of the history of people's life story highlights. The 25th birthday old maid’s party became a vehicle for using genealogy pedigree charts to perpetuate arranged marriages among free-spirited female college graduates long before its peak in the roaring twenties. You may wish to see my book, How to Start, Teach, & Franchise a Creative Genealogy Writing Class or Club: The Craft of Producing Salable Living, by Anne Hart (Jun 12, 2008).
In Connecticut Yankee tradition, on a single woman’s 25th birthday, her female friends frequently showered her with an old maid’s etiquette, genealogy, and social history party. In an era of suffragettes, the newfangled women’s vote, and first-generation female college graduates, an old maid’s party laced the hermetic corset on Charleston- dancing flappers. The old maid’s party used genealogy ‘fortune’ cookies to introduce suitable beau surnames, usually four years after college graduation, when the “old maid” began to move towards independence.
According to our family's oral folklore, along the USA eastern coastal areas, from Virginia to Maine, by the early 1930s, when work became scarce, the old maids’ parties reverted to their 1900 turn-of-the-century fame. Family tradition rules of control battled the new century’s voices for women’s independence. Fears of scarcity and poverty depicted women’s fates as future bag ladies in silent films.
The old maid’s tea party fad also reasserted itself around 1900 with turn-of-the-century fervor
In the silent film titled, “The Old Maid's Tea Party (1902),” four old maids are seated at a table drinking tea and gossiping. According to the filmography summary online from the Edison Catalog: “One of the guests evidently thinks it is the last good meal she is ever to indulge in.” The guest stows away cookies and other good things in the bosom of her clothing. “The hostess discovers the theft, and war is declared. The offending party is quickly dispatched. This picture is especially posed with a view to bringing out facial expressions that are very fine.”
Connection became important. In contrast to the reality-based fear of old maids becoming impoverished bag ladies, the traditional old maid’s party belonged to Ivy League college graduates trying to keep family connections firm by matchmaking. Higher education connected alumni communities that encouraged 50-year female friendships through correspondence and conferences.
The idea continued to be instilled in women that if they had no family of their own when old, there would still be a supportive network of classmates who went through college with them. These would serve as close, extended families of friends and mentors.
In real life, a ‘certified’ tea consultant arrived at the old maid’s party to present the art of tea. With each major category of tea and tableware presented, the partygoers learned about the history of tea, exchanged genealogy parchments, and received gifts that included hope chests, blank diaries for journaling, and button-hook shoe coin banks.
This turning point ritual, a celebration of life, marked a significant event and biographical highlight with chamomile, collectibles, and compassion. As serendipity showers, old maids’ parties highlighted the sheltered lives of upper middle class graduates of Ivy League women’s colleges.
On the other hand, should the old maid find a suitable match from one of her sorority sister’s nephews or brothers, the etiquette, entertainment, or genealogy training would be useful for a corporate wife. Like an astrologer forecasting a birth chart of the houses of planets, a genealogist called to the party for entertainment would ‘cast’ a pedigree chart or family house crest.
These gals that would become Rosie the Riveter by the 1940s lived primarily in small towns along the Eastern seaboard from Virginia to Maine. For those who attended some women’s colleges from 1921-1931, the old maid’s ‘diary’ ceremony on a 25th birthday blended memoirs, narratives, and chronicles.
Genealogy as Social History
An aunt-in-law of mine, celebrating her 98th birthday this August, is a class of 1931 Smith College graduate landscape architecture major. At age 25, she threw an old maid’s party for herself, inviting her college friends. The old maid’s party served as a ritual among single female college graduates of the economic depression years 1929-1935. Soon after her old maid’s party she met and married her husband.
In October, 1926, my mom, Sally Tucker of upstate New York and Pennsylvania had her chamomile-turmeric-coriander tea party. Sage tea served also as a hair rinse. Ginger tea or friendship bread parties served to calm queasy stomachs from the floating old maids’ parties if the family owned a boat. Another ritual of the infusion ceremony involved drinking jasmine tea and playing the card game of “Old Maid.”
Pedigree Chart Card Party
You play Old Maid using using a pack of cards from which one queen has been removed. Players match cards. The player holding the unmatched queen at the end of the game is the loser or “old maid.” Genealogy cards with family surnames and trivia or history sometimes took the form of a deck of cards, crafted by the “old maid” for the party.
The old maid trembled at the thought of being left holding the unmatched queen card at the end of the game. So often a genealogical card of family history found its place in the deck, and the unmatched queen card got lost. The symbolic word was ‘unmatched,’ and the purpose of the old maid party was to gather female friends for the purpose of matching the woman on her 25th birthday to an suitable single brother or cousin. That’s why the genealogy parchments or a deck of family history ‘cards’ made the rounds for each friend to put a check next to the suitable bachelor’s name on the pedigree chart or deck-sized card.
A quick glance at the genealogy sheet showed whether the name checked came from well-connected families. For the middle-class college graduates, a checked name meant a potential good provider or rising star—patient father material, memorable surname, and slow to anger.
Favorite surnames were bland and sounded like male first names. Old maids looked at the name first, whether it sounded like a famous book author’s name….Poe, Wolf, Crane, Brooks, Hart, Twain, or anything sounding one syllable. Tradition taught that one-syllable surnames traveled far up the corporate career ladder because people remembered ‘lucky’ one-syllable words.
You could determine quickly whether you were related to the young fellow’s great grandfather or see if he’s a descendant of someone you’d recognize or want to learn more about if you played with a deck of genealogy cards designed for a party.
An old maid’s festivity emphasized genealogy questions, attitude, and personality preferences—even head size in relation to easy potential child birth if the gentleman to be introduced had a flattened occiput and narrow forehead. “Eat prunes, and forget the head shape,” a dithering voice inevitably would interrupt the laughter. “Look at blood type,” came the cry in the late 1930s.
Friends invited to these parties usually graduated from the same women’s college classes during an era when not many women attended college. The friends acted as matchmakers clustering around a lavish, elegant grand tea party where suitable bachelors checked off the pedigree chart or card list in a desperate last attempt to connect families.
Since the early 1800s a single woman’s 25th birthday marked the old maid ball in upper middle class homes with mini ballrooms that imitated the upper class’s larger halls. Genealogy games played a major part in old maids’ parties that historically date back to the 1800s.
Today’s Old Maids’ Parties
Today, the renewed old maids’ tea parties usually are set in the summer around backyard swimming pools. The Old Maid Party is a world apart from 21st century ‘bachelorette’ girls’ night out Las Vegas-style parties. The old maid’s garden party traditionally featured classical music, tea, and genealogy readings or a water paddle steam boat up the river.
Wealthy girls with family yachts sailed to secret coves with their female college friends to discuss each woman’s future and family connection potential. Winter 25th birthdays gathered around the fire place for high tea, relationship chats, and seasonal décor.
Independence, current issues of being a woman, and finding security within family took precedence as the major lifestyles topics focused on shift and drift.
It’s no longer a rite of passage belonging to the upper middle class. The old time party rivaled an Irish wake or a Unitarian celebration-of-life party. The old maid conviviality revived in current time takes place around coed apartment complex swimming pools.
A century ago, old maids’ parties flaunted extravagance and used genealogy ‘readings’ or ‘charts’ and decks of hand crafted cards that served as scrap books and pedigree presentations at individual tables. Sometimes the parties were held in the presidential suites of hotels such as the Del Coronado in San Diego. The style preserved the American equivalent of Edwardian food, flavor, and décor until the 1929 economic downturn. Ambiance ruled document and photo preservation techniques.
Family History Memorabilia Dominated the Lavish Old Maid Party
During the 1840-1940 golden eras of lavish old maids’ tea parties, the most creative memorabilia of these events appear now in some antique stores. When the 19th century hope chests are opened, inside are wonderfully conserved genealogy reports on parchment and translucent tea party china, family Bibles permeated with names, birth dates, and three-line poems, similar to Haiku, summarizing a person’s attitude, purpose, or goal.
The old maid’s party planners baked a form of flaky-crust fortune cookies where poems were three liners on parchment baked into a cookie that resembled dried fruit-filled Cornish pasties. The strips of paper popular in the mid-1920s with the three-line poems consisted usually of 11 syllables. The poem began with a three-syllable word followed by a five word line containing all one-syllable words. The last line would be one three-syllable word. For example, found in Sally Tucker’s 1926 memorabilia from her Old Maid party are the three liners that read:
Joy but waits its turn,
Not only fortune-type cookies, scones, or pasties were baked with poems on parchment, but sometimes genealogy links of family history names or trivia found their way into the baked goods. When the old maid divided the cookie at high tea, the parchment was pulled out and read before the group.
Often it contained family history member’s names of suitable cousins, nephews, or brothers that the “old maid” would drop into a button-hook shoe to savor later if she requested a formal introduction from the lady who brought the box of treats for the party.
Memorabilia and decks of the card game called “Old Maid” also included prized collectibles. Merrymakers gave genealogy time capsules wrapped in “remember to light a candle for me” cards to prized nieces on the fourth year after college graduation from numerous Ivy League women’s colleges.
During the era of 1920-1935, revelers turned the ritual of 25th birthday old maids’ tea, sympathy, and family history card parties into housewarming celebrations featuring gifts of translucent china, button-hook shoe coin banks, and filled hope chests for career-track ladies living alone in the big city (usually in their first apartments). Genealogists may team with social historians as collectors of old maids’ party memorabilia. Items also included restored family photos, grandma’s diaries, and genealogy documents, family Bibles, and keepsake albums.
By the World War II era, the idea of throwing an old maid’s party on your 35th birthday, instead of your 25th, fell in step with Rosie the Riveter. You competed for marriage with war widows who frequently had small children.
In the 1939 film, “The Old Maid,” Bette Davis vies with Miriam Hopkins for the affection of George Brent in the film version of Edith Wharton's 1935 play.
Turning Points and Life Story Highlights
These showers transformed lavish coming of age rites into significant turning points by dissecting or disproving the “crusty, conservative” character of the old maid. Often the hostess at the party began to entertain by reading passages from the novel titled, “The Old Maid,” by Edith Wharton, born into the 1862 upper stratum of New York society.
Traditionally, the old maid’s psyche was never spelled out directly. You become an old maid gradually, just like you raise a family in baby steps. And it is a coming of age and rites of passage party that the old maid presented. She became a debutante matron at her 25th birthday “last flowering” like an aging bamboo, as was thought at the turn of the current century.
In the past, women were ‘destined’ to become old maids, often as foretold to them by astrologers at their 25th birthday old maid’s parties marking the quarter century when the average life span for women was 47 years. But you are an old maid only in the eyes of the beholders.
The true purpose of the old maid “corset unlacing” party focused on giving the old maid a second chance. The party centered on the flowering, rebirth, and renewal of the old maid’s commitment, conservatism, and simplicity—her universal values, charm, wit, irony, and virtues. History dictates that every city and satire has its ruling families and their lifestyles. And very family has its ruling history connecting each descendant.
Décor featured a centerpiece at the old maid’s party—the old maid flower, a zinnia. It had bright pink petals. Cayenne and jasmine symbolized the traditional “old maid” herbs. In fact, a dictionary definition of an old maid, besides being a spinster or elderly unmarried woman also is defined as “a person who is primly fastidious.”
What Did Friends Discuss at Old Maids’ Parties?
The traditional old maid’s party featured a rose garden table under topiary branches with low-hanging boughs. Petals lined the tea-cup saucers to symbolize fleeting ‘loveliness.’ The women drank spiced tea and discussed their plans, the weather, and the war. The more lavish the party, the more the women emphasized the utter simplicity of family commitment--keeping the relatives together, helping to put bread on the table, and universal values. The subject always centered on the reality of being an old maid.
The questions—do you get a second chance? Or have you lost your bloom? Will anyone want you now? Must you choose between visionary change and traditional family?
The whole idea of a waxing rose garden setting for an old maid’s fête held, preferably in the spring, is to share the recycling of nature over tea and basil cucumber nonfat cream cheese and chives finger sandwiches. Remember to remove the crusts.
Currently, the old maid’s party is back. Read references to “The Old Maids Tea Party” in such books as, A Little Maid of Old Connecticut (The Little Maid Series) by Alice Turner Curtis and Wuanita Smith (Feb 1997) or A Little Maid of Old New York (Little Maid Historical Series) by Alice Turner Curtis and Elizabeth Pilsbry (Feb 1996).
To bring back your own old maid’s party, refer to different creative genealogy techniques in my paperback books titled, 101+ Practical Ways to Raise Funds: A Step-by-Step Guide with Answers by Anne Hart (Dec 11, 2007). ISBN: 978-0-595-48058-6. Published Dec. 2007, ASJA Press imprint, iUniverse.inc. Or check out, How to Start Personal Histories and Genealogy Journalism Businesses: Genealogy Course Template, Syllabus, Writing... by Anne Hart (Feb 22, 2006). ISBN: 0-595-38698-9. Published, Feb-2006.
Or make your own deck of genealogy cards. Different ideas are found in my book, Creating Family Newsletters & Time Capsules: How to Publish Multimedia Genealogy Periodicals or Gift Booklets by Anne Hart (June 5, 2006). ISBN: 0-595-39872-3. At this date it's listed at Amazon.com.