J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Henry Sargent’s Tea Party and the Boston Tea Party

I invited Charles Bahne, author of The Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail, to write a guest-blogger essay for Boston 1775 on the origin of the term “Boston Tea Party.” An expert in many eras of Boston history, Charlie had noted how that term appeared in print shortly after a notable cultural moment.

The destruction of the tea in Boston Harbor on December 17, 1773, is one of American history’s most famous events. As Boston 1775 has documented already, the earliest known use of the phrase “Boston Tea Party” to describe that event occurred more than 50 years later, in 1826. Just two years before this, however, the term “Tea Party” appeared in conjunction with Boston, albeit in an entirely different context. Is it possible that this earlier usage influenced the 1826 coinage?

For obvious political reasons, tea as a beverage lost favor in America after 1773. But as time elapsed, tea again become fashionable, particularly for the upper class. By the early 1820s, consumption of tea had become the focus of elegant social gatherings.

Shown here is a portrayal of one such gathering: Henry Sargent’s painting The Tea Party, completed and first exhibited in Boston in the spring of 1824.

Sargent’s earlier canvas, The Dinner Party (1821), had been a commercial success when it was first exhibited, so Boston gallery owner David L. Brown commissioned a companion picture from Sargent. The Columbian Centinel of May 1, 1824, included a notice that The Tea Party was displayed in “Mr. Brown’s Rooms” at 2 Cornhill Square, from 9 o’clock in the morning until dark; admittance was 25 cents. (Cornhill Square was an alley opposite the present 226 Washington Street, on part of the site now occupied by the skyscraper at 1 Boston Place.)

In The Magazine Antiques for May 1982, Jane C. Nylander offers evidence that both The Dinner Party and The Tea Party depict rooms in Henry Sargent’s own rowhouse mansion, located at 10 Franklin Place in Boston. This was part of Charles Bulfinch’s famous Tontine Crescent, on modern-day Franklin Street near Arch Street.

The large Tea Party canvas, more than five feet high by four feet wide, gives us a window into the lives of Boston’s social elite. In the two parlors, women and men are seated, standing and lounging. The furnishings are of the highest taste and fashion, as described in contemporary writings by Thomas Sheraton, George Hepplewhite, and others, featuring items imported from France and Italy. Barely visible in a side room, an African-American waiter stands ready to dispense tea, coffee, and cakes from his tray. As Nylander points out, the painting’s great appeal was precisely due to the vicarious thrill of “an intimate glimpse of a private world of luxury” to those who couldn’t afford such opulence.

While I can offer no proof, it seems likely that this work by a prominent Boston artist helped establish a verbal connection between the phrases “Boston” and “tea party” in the mid 1820s. How ironic, then, that today’s highly-politicized term “Boston Tea Party” may have been originally popularized by a portrayal of the social life of Boston’s 1%!

Interestingly, both Henry Sargent’s house and David Brown’s art gallery were scarcely more than a block away from the Old South Meeting House, where Bostonians had gathered just before the tea was thrown into the harbor.

The Tea Party and The Dinner Party were exhibited in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and other cities over the course of two decades. Nearly a century after they were painted, the artist’s family gave them to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where they are now on display in Gallery 121 of the new Art of the Americas wing. There you too can get a glimpse into the lifestyles of the rich and famous of the early 19th century.

Thanks, Charlie! Click back here for Charles Bahne’s study of exactly what tea was thrown into Boston harbor and how much it cost.

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