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Cooper-Siegel tea parties offer glimpse into the past

By Sharon Drake
Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

A cup of tea can be an entry into a time that moves a little bit slower, as proven at the latest tea party at the Cooper-Siegel Community Library.

“Teas are fun, particularly with a granddaughter,” said Margie Hartsock of Fox Chapel.

Lily Hartsock, looking anything but old-fashioned with her cross-body Kate Spade bag, participated in all of the afternoon's activities.

The 16-year-old used spring break from Fox Chapel Area High School to spend time with her grandmother and to catch up on the history of tea parties.

On hand to share the past was Laura Ainsley, assistant curator of education and adult programs at the Frick Art & Historical Center.

Her topic for the day was dining, and she went back to the Romans before concentrating on the heyday of the Gilded Era.

Ainsley brought artifacts from the latter half of the 19th century, which are part of the Frick collection.

This was a time, she said, when parts of everyday life for the wealthy — such as eating — were ritualized into artistic endeavors.

Ainsley explained how the Frick tables would be set with nine pieces of silverware and five goblets for a seven-course meal that lasted two hours.

Knowing how to use the specialized utensils, such as the small oyster fork, was considered the supreme test of refinement.

Ainsley also shared some of the specialized research — on subjects such as the Clayton mansion in Pittsburgh and famous families — that goes on at the Frick.

“It's an important part of our cultural history and our Pittsburgh history,” she said.

This was Ainsley's second visit to Cooper-Siegel.

Reference librarian Ann Andrews nicknames the series of tea parties after the popular British television show “Downton Abbey,” which is broadcast on PBS in the United States.

Andrews had a buffet of teas from which to choose, and snacks came from Alexander's Tea House in Springdale.

Emy Boag of O'Hara declared the bacon-prune scone perfect because it wasn't too sweet.

Pages from Godey's Lady's Book, a magazine that was published from 1830 to 1878, shared suggestions from the “Downton Abbey” period on how to create a “bird party,” with little details about how to bring spring into the home. Ainsley said the Frick shop sells reproductions of Coalport luncheon plates — in nonauthentic plastic — which are embellished with birds.

The camaraderie at the tea party was brimming as neighbors and friends met after the cold winter.

With a nod to the past, some attendees wore spring bonnets.

And many of the women said they look forward to the June tea party and will use the time before it arrives to search out tea gowns with a modern twist.

For more information about programs at Cooper-Siegel Community Library, call 412-828-9520 or visit

Sharon Drake is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.



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