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Where does the tradition of “afternoon tea” come from? (And why is tea such a big deal in England?)

Today’s blog is part of an occasional series dedicated to answering visitors’ questions.

A cup of bold, hot, watery brew, often with a splash of milk and spoonful of sugar, is how many people in England start their day and refuel in the afternoon. But tea hasn’t always been the staple it is today. In the mid-17th century it was a new, precious commodity in the West, a luxurious import from the farthest reaches of the British Empire. One early adopter in 1660, Samuel Pepys, referred to his first “cup of tee” as a “China drink.” This most quintessentially British drink is actually borrowed from other cultures, through the Empire’s colonial enterprises in China, India, Japan, and Kenya.

As such, drinking tea was at first a privilege reserved for royalty. And it was there, in the upper echelons of society, that the cozy ceremony we call ‘afternoon tea’ evolved.

In the wealthiest households of the 19th century, the evening meal was being served later and later in the evening. This new fashion meant there might be seven or eight hours between lunch and dinner. As the legend goes, Anne Russell, Duchess of Bedford, was tired of what she called “that sinking feeling” that came on at around four o’clock. She began ordering a small extra meal to be served in the afternoon. It included a cup of tea with milk and sugar, dainty sandwiches, and cakes. She invited women friends to join her, and it turned into a daily occasion for socializing and gossip. Queen Victoria was among Anne’s closest friends, and soon afternoon tea was also a daily ritual in the British Royal Court. The much-admired queen started a new fashion in the process, as other classes began to adopt afternoon tea as well—cementing its place in English society.

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Given the social position of the ladies among whom afternoon tea evolved, this was no casual affair. One’s best bone china and silver were brought out for serving, while the choice of tea exhibited the hostess’s taste for the exotic, expensive sundries of China, India, or Sri Lanka. The availability of sugar, also an import, in addition to refined cakes and buttery pastries, were also signs of a household’s prosperity. Servants attended the guests’ every need during these afternoon meals, with the hostess supervising.

New fashions emerged especially for the occasion, and the “tea gown” was born. A tea gown was initially designed to be worn inside and was only appropriate in the company of other women. Its comfortable, flowing silhouette—inspired by medieval styles and the Japanese kimono—offered  women a few hours’ reprieve from the restrictive corset. In the Driehaus Museum exhibition Dressing Downton, Cora Crawley’s elegant beaded tea gown with green velvet jacket is an excellent example of this style, which eventually became acceptable for more formal occasions where men were present.

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By the beginning of the 20th century, the era of Downton Abbey, afternoon tea was still an occasion for a conspicuous display of wealth, taste, and manners. Stirring one’s cream and sugar into the tea without touching the sides of the cup, or breaking a scone in just the right way, signified one’s station in an extremely class-conscious society.

Afternoon Tea Today

The Second World War and subsequent rationing of butter, sugar, and eggs caused afternoon teas to fade for a time in the mid-20th century, but the tradition returned after those austere years. Afternoon tea is as popular in England today as weekend brunch is in America.

Rather than taking place inside the home, however, the best afternoon teas of today are served in public places. High-end hotels and distinguished department stores, like Claridge’s and Fortnum & Mason in London, have deep roots in tea culture and commerce in England, and offer the most traditional repasts. Their tea menus are small hardbound books, commanding the diner’s attention with a wide variety of loose-leaf black, green, white, and herbal teas. After a few sips of tea—or, as is just as popular today, champagne—a three-tiered serving tray is presented at the table with a flourish. The lower platter contains delicate finger sandwiches with light fillings like cucumbers or smoked salmon. The central platter is dominated by tender, buttery scones, served with jams and clotted cream, which is a thick spread with a texture between butter and whipped cream. To finish, the top platter is arranged with delicate patisserie.

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Meanwhile, contemporary restaurants and up-and-coming chefs reinvent the standards while staying loyal to the spirit of afternoon tea. Afternoon tea at the Modern Pantry in London’s foodie-centric Clerkenwell district features mismatched antique china and unique takes on traditional favorites, including rosewater-infused scones, lychee bellinis, and chia-seed bread.

 

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The Driehaus Museum offers a unique afternoon tea experience in honor of this English tradition and to celebrate the exhibition Dressing Downton. The Museum’s elegant historic setting and special menu offer all the elements of a proper afternoon tea, including seasonal scones, cake breads, and tea sandwiches. The experience also features tea with a contemporary Chicago twist, featuring a tea blend by the local purveyor Rare Tea Cellar. To purchase tea tickets, click here.

Tea of a Different Color

All real teas come from the same species of plant, Camellia sinensis. The different types, often denoted by color, have to do with when the leaf is harvested and how it’s processed. Here are a few of our favorites explained:

Black tea is made of withered, crushed, and fully oxidized leaves, a process that helped it survive the long boat journey to Great Britain from the Far East. This might be why black tea is still the most popular. Regional varieties include Assam (India), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Darjeeling (India), Oolong (China), and Lapsang (China). English breakfast tea is a blend of Kenyan, Ceylon, and Assam.

Earl Grey tea is a black tea to which the essence of bergamot, a type of citrus, has been added. It’s named for Charles Grey, the British Prime Minister in the 1830s. A London Fog is a kind of latte made with Earl Grey tea, milk, and vanilla.

Chai tea comes from India, and is black tea simmered with milk and spices including cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, ginger, and cloves.

Pu’erh is a fermented black tea on trend in the Western world, but has been prized for ages in China for its health benefits.

Green teas are unoxidized, which is why the leaves retain their fresh green color. The flavor is grassier as a result, with lower caffeine content. Varieties include Matcha, Sencha, Gunpowder, and Hojicha.

White teas are made from young, delicate tea buds, and mostly come from China. They are the least processed, with very little caffeine and subtle flavor.

Redbush tea, or rooibos, comes from South Africa. Naturally caffeine free, it’s a robust but smooth brew made from the needle-like leaves of the Aspalathus linearis.

Herbal tea is caffeine-free and comes in many forms. Rather than from the leaves of the tea plant, it’s made from other dried leaves or roots, including ginger, peppermint, licorice, or raspberry.

 

Images
A Family of Three at Tea, attr. Richard Collins, ca. 1727. From the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O56103/a-family-of-three-at-oil-painting-richard-collins/
Portrait of actress Irene Castle in a tea gown, 1913.
Photograph of tea advertisement found on Feast: An Edible Road Trip.
Photographs of afternoon teas by Lindsey Howald Patton, 2015.

 

Resources
Fortnum & Mason, “A Short History of Afternoon Tea” (https://www.fortnumandmason.com/fortnums/short-history-of-afternoon-tea)
Fellows, Elizabeth. Tea at Downton: Afternoon Tea Recipes from The Unofficial Guide to Downton Abbey
The Tea Spot, “The Leaf” (http://theteaspot.com/about-tea.html)
Corie, Store Manager

Corie, Store Manager

First name? Corie-ann

What is your title and what role does your position play at the Driehaus Museum? Museum Store Manager – My job is to ensure the day to day running of the Museum Store.  I also choose and buy all of the merchandise and set up all of our displays.

How long have you worked at the Museum? I have worked at the Driehaus Museum for three years.

Where are you from/where do you currently reside?  I am originally from a small town just west of Boston.  I moved to Chicago in 2012 and I have loved every moment since coming here!  My husband and I live in University Village and we really enjoy all the new restaurants and stores that are starting to open in our neighborhood. It’s quiet but were still so close to everything downtown.  

What is your education/experience background? How or why did you come to work at the Driehaus Museum?  I went to the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and received my B.A. in Art History in 2008.  I spent a semester studying at NYU in Paris and completed two internships at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  I was working outside my degree when I met my husband at the Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C.  He lived in Chicago and eventually I saw it as a great opportunity to move to a new city and get into the museum field.  I interviewed to be a volunteer at the Driehaus Museum and was hired to be a guide instead.  Three months later I was approached with the opportunity to open a new Museum Store for the Driehaus Museum and the rest is history!  

If you were a staff member of the Nickerson Mansion at the turn of the century, what role would you have and why? Could I be “Keeper of the Jewels”?  That is an official job title, right?  If not I would like to be the Ladies Maid.  I have some talent with hair and makeup and I like to think my fashion game is strong. 

If you were trapped in the Museum overnight, what would you do?  I would raid the refrigerator in the staff lounge and make up a lovely dinner for myself.  I would then set the grand table in the Nickerson’s dining room and eat my dinner there.  Since I have started working here I have always imagined what a dinner party would be like in the dining room.

What is your favorite movie?  Book?  I have a soft spot for Pixar Movies but period films tend to also draw me in.  I also read quite a bit but I always go back to Harry Potter every once in a while.

What is your favorite holiday/program or event at the Museum?  Anything tied to the holidays is my favorite.  Starting with the Murder Mystery event and then into our Christmas programming, it is the most fun time of year. I really can’t just choose one.  I do love having a pianist here during Santa Saturdays.  The house has so much energy when live music is being played.

What is your dream job? My dream job, ever since I was little, is to be an expert for the Antiques Roadshow.  I just need to choose a specialty and become an expert in that field.  Jewelry is my passion at the moment.

Tell us about one of your favorite moments during your time working at the Museum? The day the Museum Store opened was so special for me.  I had worked for over 6 months building the look of the store and buying new merchandise.  Seeing the store finally open and people shopping was so exciting and fulfilling!

Emily, Museum Guide

Driehaus Museum —  November 2, 2015 — 1 Comment
Emily, Museum Guide

Emily, Museum Guide

Our staff is always asked about our backgrounds and how they came to work at the Driehaus Museum.  So we wanted to share some of our amazing team with everyone. And, as always, let us know if you have any other questions.

First name? Emily

What is your title and what role does your position play at the Driehaus Museum? Tour Guide- meaning that I give tours, but also answer guest questions on the floor.

How long have you worked at the Museum? Nearly five months.

Where are you from/where do you currently reside? I grew up in the historic town of New Castle, Delaware, which I attribute to my early fascination with history. It was originally settled by the Dutch in 1651 and still has some interesting quirks, including a few cobblestone road that will raddle your brain. Prior to my moving to Chicago, my husband started a job in the city and I followed a couple of months later in June 2014.

What is your education/experience background? How or why did you come to work at the Driehaus Museum? I received my BA in History & German from the University of Delaware, where my research interests were in 18th and 19th century women’s and African-American history. During this time, I joined a digital humanities project called the “Colored Conventions Project”, which aimed at making a public database on Black organizing in the nineteenth-century. From this experience, I realized my interest in the education of the public and the importance it can have on a community.

Feeling unsatisfied with only four years of German, I decided to accept a fellowship at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the department of Germanic Studies. I continue to work on my master’s degree, which this academic year has extended into a Teaching Assistantship. My research interests have changed into gender and sexuality in German literature, particularly in 18th century works. I came to the Driehaus Museum wanting a practical application to my education and to gain experience in the museum world. I am excited to continue working and learning at this beautiful museum.

If you were a staff member of the Nickerson Mansion at the turn of the century, what role would you have and why? I would probably be a normal housekeeper, knowing that my cooking skills wouldn’t please the Nickerson’s.

If you were trapped in the Museum overnight, what would you do? If I could do anything, I would use years of classical piano training and play the Chickering and Sons piano in the Drawing Room.

What is your favorite movie?  Book? All-time favorite movie is Jaws. Favorite English book is a series called Incarnations of Immortality by Piers Anthony. Favorite German book is a young reader’s book called “Momo” by Michael Ende, who more famously wrote The NeverEnding Story.

What is your dream job? Anything that would pay me to travel to unique places.

If you’ve ever visited the Museum, you may have noticed that the visitor toilets all seem to be from another age. The seats are polished wood and the cistern sits high overhead, flushed by a chain with a porcelain handle. The porcelain bowl rim reads, “The Venerable,” and the seal: “The Venerable Thomas Crapper & Company, Made in Gt. Britain.”

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Laura-Caroline, Collections & Exhibitions Manager at the Driehaus Museum

Laura-Caroline, Collections & Exhibitions Manager at the Driehaus Museum

Our staff is always asked about our backgrounds and how they came to work at the Driehaus Museum.  So we wanted to share some of our amazing team with everyone.  And, as always, let us know if you have any other questions.

First name?  Laura-Caroline

What is your title and what role does your position play at the Driehaus Museum?  I’m the Collections & Exhibitions Manager at the Driehaus Museum. I help care for and manage the historic interiors of the house and our decorative arts collection; and, in addition, I manage the planning, organization, and installation of our permanent and temporary exhibitions, like Maker & Muse and our upcoming Dressing Downton installations.

How long have you worked at the Museum?  I joined the team in May of 2014, so just a little over a year.

Where are you from/where do you currently reside?  Originally, I’m from Greenville, South Carolina. I live in Chicago’s exciting Logan Square neighborhood now and moved to the city about six years ago, by way of Memphis, TN and Washington D.C.

What is your education/experience background? How or why did you come to work at the Driehaus Museum?  I started working in galleries and museums at the age of 16 and never looked back. So, my art background is already a bit of a long one. I studied Art History at Rhodes College in Memphis (go Lynx cats!). When I finished, I received a year-long academic internship working in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s curatorial and registrar’s departments, organizing exhibitions and researching for exhibition catalogues. I eventually returned to Memphis to act as project coordinator for a public art organization called the UrbanArt Commission, taking care of the city’s art collection while planning new art projects throughout Memphis with local, regional, and national artists.

But, being a total nerd and missing school, I moved to Chicago to attend The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), where I received dual master’s degrees in Modern Art History, Theory, & Criticism and Arts Administration & Policy. While at SAIC, I worked as Chief Registrar for the Roger Brown Study Collection a house museum in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, I was curator for the school’s Creativity in the Workplace program, curating approximately fourteen exhibitions a year throughout Chicagoland, and for a year I served as the program coordinator for SAIC’s Visiting Artists Program before deciding to go back into exhibitions and collections management, which is how I found myself at the Driehaus Museum. Previously, my focus was in modern and contemporary art, so this Gilded Age collection is a new and exciting venture for me!

If you were trapped in the Museum overnight, what would you do?  While painstakingly installing 275 pieces of jewelry last January for our Maker & Muse exhibition, it sometimes felt like we WERE trapped in the museum overnight—these shows don’t install themselves, you know!

But, if I were not installing, had free reign of the place, and were allowed to break every collections-care rule in the book? I would absolutely post up in the Library’s (attributed to the Herter Bros.) chair under the gryphon lamp with a glass of scotch, a cigar, and a good book for the night. I also played piano for many years when I was younger, so I’d likely spend time on our Chickering & Sons piano in the Drawing Room. And, if friends are invited, then I wouldn’t pass up on a dance party opportunity in the Ballroom either. The house offers lots of great overnight possibilities, now that I think about it…

What is your favorite holiday/program or event at the Museum?  If you’ve never been to the Museum around the winter holidays, you really have to put it on your bucket list. We’re over-the-top, but tastefully decorated with holiday décor that—while wreaking havoc on the collections team for the amount of glitter that gets deposited everywhere—looks absolutely stunning and will immediately put you in the holiday spirit, even after a long afternoon of Michigan Avenue holiday shopping. Therefore, I’d have to go with Santa Saturdays being my favorite program at the museum. Because, who doesn’t want to have brunch with the jolliest man alive in such a lovely setting!?

Tell us about one of your favorite moments during your time working at the Museum?  I work with amazing colleagues here at the Driehaus Museum, so picking one favorite moment is difficult and with a job as multifaceted as this one, every day is an adventure! I’ll give two examples. The first is one of the most memorable, though perhaps not necessarily my favorite. Our second floor features an original water closet in between Addie’s and Mrs. Nickerson’s bedrooms, which now act as exhibition galleries for us. During my third week of working at the museum, it came to my attention that the non-functioning original facilities within that water closet had been put to use for their originally intended purposes. It was in the process of determining how to handle that situation that I realized that this new job would not be like any other I’d ever experienced…

One of the sweetest moments I’ve had yet came on the last day of installation of the Maker & Muse exhibition. Our team worked many late hours for two weeks to install this extensive exhibition. The last day of install in particular was filled with intricate installation needs and last minute touch ups, in preparation for Mr. Driehaus’s first viewing of the exhibition that evening. But, the team finished with about an hour to spare. That brief period, between putting the last necklace in its case and showing the exhibition to its first visitor, found our team sitting on the main hall steps, having the first moment in months to really absorb and observe what it was we’d all been working towards. That shared sense of calm, pride, and enthusiastic exhaustion was really very special.

Claire, Museum Guide at the Driehaus Museum

Claire, Museum Guide at the Driehaus Museum

Our staff is always asked about our backgrounds and how they came to work at the Driehaus Museum.  So we wanted to share some of our amazing team with everyone.  And, as always, let us know if you have any other questions.

First name?  Claire

What is your title and what role does your position play at the Driehaus Museum?  Museum guide. I give tours of the Nickerson mansion to guests of the museum.

How long have you worked at the Museum? 8.5 Months

Where are you from/where do you currently reside?  I am from Minnesota and I currently live in Wicker Park

What is your education/experience background? How or why did you come to work at the Driehaus Museum?  I have a Bachelor’s degree from DePaul University in anthropology and art history. I also have a Master’s in Archaeology from the University of Glasgow.

If you were a staff member of the Nickerson Mansion at the turn of the century, what role would you have and why?  Probably something like a ladies’ maid because I hate doing dishes and laundry.

If you were trapped in the Museum overnight, what would you do?  Expect all of the objects to come to life.

What is your favorite movie?   My favorite movie is probably a tie between The Princess Bride and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.

What is your favorite holiday/program or event at the Museum?  I liked working the Driehaus Prize event because we got to go into the Murphy Auditorium.

What is your dream job?  Something in the curatorial department in a museum dealing with art objects, artifacts, etc.

Tell us about one of your favorite moments during your time working at the Museum?  I thought it was pretty funny when someone asked me to explain hysteria during a tour.

Lindsay, Marketing Manager at the Driehaus Museum

Lindsay, Marketing Manager at the Driehaus Museum

Our staff is always asked about our backgrounds and why we ended up working for the Driehaus Museum.  So we wanted to share some of our amazing team with everyone.  And, as always, let us know if you have any other questions.

First name? Lindsay

What is your title and what role does your position play at the Driehaus Museum? Marketing Manager – I handle the advertising, marketing, social media, PR, as well as the website for the Museum.

Where are you from/where do you currently reside? I grew up in a tiny town outside of Houston, Texas.  In 2006, my wife and I moved to Chicago sight unseen and fell in love with the Lakeview area. We decided to try out downtown living in 2013, moved to the South Loop, and have enjoyed being able to walk to/from anything happening in the city such as the Pritzker Pavilion, Art Institute, Lollapalooza, Jazz Fest, etc.

What is your education/experience background? How or why did you come to work at the Driehaus Museum? I have a BFA in Graphic Design & Advertising, as well as minors in both English and Art History from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.  My dream was to work in an art museum, and tried on many occasions to get a job at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.  Each time I was told to start lower – interning, volunteering, or taking a small job such as in the store.

When we moved to Chicago, the job I was transferring with fell through once we got into the city which caused me to start a hunt for something new.  A position opened up as a supervisor in the store at The Field Museum and I easily got the job with my extensive retail background.  It only took about 6 months until I was promoted to the back office area helping out the buyers.  I stayed with the Field for over 8 years, holding several different positions, lastly in the Communications department. During my time at the Field, I went back to school and earned a Masters of Arts in Museum Studies, as I had finally decided that this was the career for me.

I decided I missed my art history roots, began searching out art museums in the city and happened upon the Driehaus Museum.  After reading about how new (in the museum world) it was and how the Museum was started thanks to Mr. Driehaus, I was shocked that more people in the city didn’t know about it.  And I wanted to tell everyone.  So when the position for the Marketing Manager came up I knew I had to jump on it so I could tell everyone about this hidden treasure of a museum!

If you were a staff member of the Nickerson Mansion at the turn of the century, what role would you have and why? Most likely the cook since I love cooking and entertaining for others.

If you were trapped in the Museum overnight, what would you do? If it was possible, I would light the fireplace in the Front Parlor, pull the sofa from the Drawing Room into the Parlor, bring in a bottle of wine, and read by fire light in the mansion as the city bustles about outside.

What is your favorite movie?  Book? Favorite movie is Jurassic Park.  Favorite book is a tie between Orlando by Virginia Woolf, The Princess Bride and any of the Harry Potter books (though Goblet of Fire has always held a special place in my heart).

What is your favorite holiday/program or event at the Museum? The Summer Servants tour.  I have never experienced a living history tour until coming to the Driehaus Museum.  It is a engaging and educational way to learn about the Nickerson family, the house, as well as the Gilded Age.

What is your dream job? Ever since I was little I wanted to be a paleontologist – but then I discovered you had to be decent at math, which is my worst subject.  So if they took that part out and just let me dig in the dirt all day I would be a happy camper.

Tell us about one of your favorite moments during your time working at the Museum? The day we announced the Downton Abbey exhibition to the public was so much fun.  Watching the press and social media grabbing onto to the news and being so excited about it made me smile.  Not to mention the amount of messages from my own friends wanting to come see it.  Sorry guys! You have to wait until October to purchase tickets just like everyone else! I cannot wait to see this exhibition in person when it’s installed inside the mansion.  It’s going to be very elegant and so enjoyable for fans of the show, myself included.

J & J. G. Low Art Tile Works was one of America’s great tile companies, and there are many instances of its decorative, low-relief tiles in the Driehaus Museum’s original interiors today.

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