Enjoying high tea fit for 18th-century nobility at the Bradford House
Written for the Observer-Reporter by Katherine Mansfield
A group of women dressed in their holiday best gathered in the Bradford House foyer, where garland wound its way up the wooden banister and mistletoe hung with care in the living room doorway.
The friends and strangers arrived shortly before 4 p.m. Dec. 6 for the Bradford House’s final Ladies Tea of the year, a 12th Night celebration fit for 18th-century nobility.
“Christmas traditions were quite different in the 18th century,” said Denise Cummins, president-elect of the Bradford House Historical Association and welcoming Ladies Tea docent. “Christmas Day was not really celebrated. The 12th Night, Feast of the Epiphany, on Jan. 6, that was when they would have large parties. That was also a popular time to get married – George and Martha Washington were married on 12th Night. We wanted to do something that would combine getting people in while the (Bradford) house was decorated and teaching them the holiday traditions while they were here.”
Christmas trees and Old Saint Nick weren’t popular Christmas décor in frontier America until the late 1860s, and so the Bradford House is ornamented in holly berries and natural greenery, per custom. Customs, the house’s history and former occupants (including David Bradford himself and renowned writer Rebecca Harding Davis) were discussed during a pre-tea tour of the storied home.
In the ladies’ work room, guests gently touched the sort of fiber that would have been woven into the petticoats worn by Cummins (who dressed in full frontier attire) and breathed in deeply as a sweet-smelling bag of lavender made its rounds.
“I have to admit, I never enjoyed history in school,” said Annie Shaner, of Peters Township. “Any time I can learn more in this manner, it’s more enjoyable.”
Perhaps most enjoyable was the traditional tea; it was, after all, the reason for the evening.
Following the tour, Cummins escorted the small group into the Bradford House’s formal dining room, which boasts recessed cabinetry, a stately fireplace and mantle, and tall, thin windows. Faux candles colored the pink walls in a warm glow; tables were decorated in bright white cloth set with dainty china plates and teacups, and tins filled with big sugar cubes.
“Actually, it was more of an upper class thing to do. Out here on the frontier, unless you were somebody like the Bradfords or the Nevilles, you would not have been doing this sort of thing,” Cummins said. “It’s hard to find specific information on what was going on on the American frontier. Some of it is based on English customs at the time.”
Sugared almonds tempted guests, who helped themselves while Carol Campbell, a retired Washington Park Elementary teacher who volunteers at the Bradford House, dished candied grapes onto floral plates and Cummins served tea from a pot.
“We did a lot of research to find out what sorts of foods would have been served,” Cummins said. “This time of year, we use grapes; they would have used whatever was in season. We were able to find recipes based on 18th-century recipes. We’ve even researched what type of tea they would have had. We try to be as authentic as we can. We don’t have a kitchen, so we can’t cook on the premises. Chicco Baccello does the baking. We have a nice partnership with them.”
Women chatted between sips of tea and bites of savory puff pastries filled with onions, apples and potatoes – “It sounds odd, but it’s actually quite delicious,” Cummins said – and traditional ham and cheese quiche.
When plates were cleared and teacups refilled, Cummins presented guests the menu’s shining star: a bundt cake topped with icing drizzle and dried fruit.
Twelfth Night Cake
“One of the other traditions was a 12th Night cake, which is similar to a Mardi Gras King Cake,” she said. “There was a token or toy hidden in that cake. Whoever got the prize would be royalty for the evening.”
MariAnn Hathaway, of North Strabane, was honored to be crowned when she found the prize (a jellybean, in lieu of a token) hidden beneath her slice of 12th Night cake.
“I absolutely love this period in history. I just have always loved the colonial period,” she said, admiring the hand-painted cards also awarded the 12th Night queen. “(The Bradford House) is absolutely beautiful. I thought it was really nice. (Cummins) was very knowledgeable.”
Diane DiSalle, of McMurray, was also impressed with the Ladies Tea.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” she said, noting she’s attended dinners at the Bradford House but never the Ladies Tea. “This was lovely.”
Cummins said Bradford House teas and dinners afford the community an opportunity to see the home in a unique light.
“Tea parties right now are popular among ladies and we enjoy doing it, so it’s a win-win,” she said. “We do one in the springtime. The foods change somewhat, the stories change somewhat. We’re going to feature the garden because in May, it’s in its peak.”
Folks are welcome to keep an eye out for events listed on the Bradford House website, and those with groups of six to eight are encouraged to book their own private tea in the new year. The Bradford House will again offer a 12th Night tea, with multiple dates, toward the end of 2023.
The teas are worth attending, whether you go stag or bring a buddy.
“It was delightful,” Shaner said with a smile. “What I like is the intimacy. You meet people. It’s nice to talk and enjoy them in this intimate setting.”