Victorian Tea

joani pours her victorian teaYou had a sneak peek here. Now, it’s time for tea! In honor of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, we hosted a Victorian tea with all the trimmings. It was an ambitious, fun, and fully immersive historical program. Definitely one of my top five most favorite programs of all time. The tea was hosted at, and catered by, Palmer House, Princeton University’s bed & breakfast.

palmer house

Photo courtesy of Palmer House

Palmer House was built circa 1823-24, and was bequeathed to the University in 1968. Much of the furniture in the house is from the University’s collection (check out this amazing clock I posted on Instagram). It was absolutely beautiful. A big shout out to Innkeeper Jodi Pianka for allowing us to take over the entire downstairs the day of the program. She even let us use Palmer House’s historic front entrance!

front entranceUpon arrival, the kids were greeted by our “maidservant” (otherwise known as Anna, a sophomore at Princeton). Anna stayed in character the entire time. Let me tell you, she does an extremely authentic curtsy and fantastically demure “Yes ma’am.”

The kids were shown to the library, where they awaited the arrival of the matriarch of the house (that was me). While they waited, Marissa and Joani, (who played my “daughters”) helped them settle in and personalize a tent card for the tea table. We used images of Victorian calling cards to create the tent cards (thank you, Google image search).

table cardsWhen everyone had arrived, I was officially announced by Anna. I sashayed into the room, greeted everyone, and proceeded to do a 15 minute PowerPoint presentation on the history of tea in England.

power point presentationThe historical content and connections for this program were quite extensive, and this post is already going to be rather long. So I’m going to describe the historical content in very broad brushstrokes. At the program, kids learned how tea was initially an expensive import available only to the upper class. It was also heavily taxed (sometimes over 100%). This resulted in a roaring trade in smuggled and adulterated tea. However, as tea became more affordable, it was enjoyed by all the citizens of England.

We talked about the advent of Victorian afternoon tea, the progression of the tea set from handle-less cups and bowl-like saucers to super fancy family heirlooms, and how “High Tea” was originally associated with the lower class. The presentation was full of historic photos, paintings, humor, and interesting facts.

Then it was time for tea. I escorted the kids through the gorgeous grand parlor…

grand parlorTo the dining room where our splendid tea table was laid out!

tea tableWaiting at each chair was a unique teacup and saucer. The kids got to take home these cups and saucers as mementos. They were so excited.

tea cup 3The take-home teacup was something I really, really wanted to do when I first conceptualized this program. So I sent a request through our library’s recycling program. The response was amazing. I couldn’t believe the incredible teacups my co-workers donated! Here’s one of my favorites. Look at the little feet!

teacup 2I also stopped by Nearly New, a local thrift store/consignment shop. They completely hooked me up with some delightful cups and saucers.

Once everyone was seated, and before we started serving the goodies, there was a little more history. I decided not to use PowerPoint for this portion of the presentation, opting instead for props and photos reprinted on 8.5 x 11 card stock. This is because while we were at the tea table, I wanted things to feel very natural and low tech.

One of the things I demonstrated was how tea was traditionally brewed (i.e. loose leaves steeped in a pot). I had some more modern tea infusers, as well as loose leaf green and black tea on display.

tea instructionI couldn’t resist demonstrating tea pods as well. Have you seen these things? They are dried herbal pods you drop into hot water, and they “bloom” as they steep in the hot water. I first spotted one in Sophia Coppola’s movie Marie Antoinette. As luck would have it, Infini-T, our local tea shop, had them!

tea pod demo

Finally, tea. We served Twinings English black tea (decaf of course) in teabags. To avoid  scalding hazards, kids brought their cups and saucers over to a silver tea urn.

tea urnI was stationed next to the urn, offering milk and sugar. I can’t resist sharing this little history fact…way back when, sugar came in big cones you had to break apart with a special tool called sugar nippers. This resulted in irregular lumps of sugar. Hence the question “one lump or two?”

When everyone had settled with their cups, The maid and my daughters circled the room, bearing trays filled with mini-cupcakes, mini-scones, mini-croissants, and cookies. Jam and butter were also available. Mmmmm.

cupcakes

joani servestea table 5

tea table 1anna servestea table 3tea table 6tea table 4tea table 7Having coached the kids on Victorian etiquette earlier in the program, I am happy to report that our young ladies and gentleman did very well indeed. Napkins were on laps, voices were not raised. We conversed very genially about their activities, interests, holiday doings, and travel adventures.

After tea, we retired to the grand parlor. I explained that after family teas or parties, Victorians like to play parlor games. And we tried a few period games!

To play “The Laughing Game,” stand in a circle facing each other. The first person says “Ha.” The next person says “Ha Ha.” The third person says “Ha Ha Ha” and so on. This must be done with a completely straight face. The first person who smiles or laughs must pay a forfeit. We never made it past the fourth person.

the laughing gameTo play “Hunt the Thimble,” have everyone leave the room except for one person. That person must hide a thimble somewhere in the room (however, it must be in plain view and not hidden behind anything). The players reenter the room and silently begin searching. If you spot the thimble, you immediately sit on the floor. The last person standing must pay a forfeit.

hunt the thimbleAnd now, for the crowning glory of the program. Joani, who is in Glee Club, agreed to research and perform some popular period music pieces. She sang two, including “How Doth the Little Crocodile.” The song is, of course, the poem from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland set to music. It’s from a rare 1872 Alice in Wonderland songbook from our special collections.

After that, the merry tea drinkers departed, carrying their cups and saucers home in white paper bags. We managed to snap some photos of our guests. On the invitation to the tea, kids were encouraged to dress up. Look at these two lovely ladies!

lovely ladiesWe asked these kids to sit and look “proper.”

looking proper in the parlorAnd check out the breeches on the young gentleman! I do believe those are modified baseball pants. That, my friends, is innovation.

photoBut this “dress up” took the Wonderland cake. Behold the queen of hearts!

queen of heartsSo how did the Victorian tea program go over? Amazingly well. Astonishingly well. We had a jolly good time I tell you! And while I loved the setting, the teacups, the costumes, and the cupcakes, the best part for me was how much history was packed in with the fun. Honestly, I don’t think any of them will ever look at a cup of tea in the same way again.

However, I think it was poor Anna who received the most authentic Victorian experience that day. We ran two sessions, a 10am and a 1pm. Anna was dashing around as the maid for hours. The poor girl was completely wiped out at the end! Thus, a portrait of a very tired maid.

anna is way tired


Thank you again to Palmer House for hosting the tea, McCarter Theater for the costume loans, and for everyone who donated teacups and saucers. You helped make the program truly amazing. Thank you!

Olfactory Sorcery

dragons bloodEnter the realm of mystery, magic, spells, sorcery, and…smoked paprika. That’s right. Never underestimate the POWER of roast chicory! First, we made herbal amulets at our story time for 6-8 year-olds. Then we votes with our noses. The burning question? Which spice smells most like dragon’s blood?

We read Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones (Greenwillow Books, 1977). When Cat Chant and his older sister Gwendolen become orphans, Cat is quite happy to settle down quietly in their village. But Gwendolen is set on ruling the world, and writes a mysterious letter to a powerful enchanter named Chrestomanci. To Cat’s surprise (and Gwendolen’s glee), Chrestomanci agrees to adopt the children and raise them in his magnificent castle. However, when Chrestomanci and his constituents fail to fawn over the spoiled Gwendolen, she launches a vengeful campaign to create magical mayhem. Things get even more complicated when Gwendolen departs to a parallel world, dragging her double (a girl named Janet), into Cat’s world. It’s up to Cat and Janet to set right all the problems Gwendolen’s created. But in the process, they uncover Gwendolen’s worst plot yet – one that puts Cat in grave danger.

For the hands-on portion of our program, we made these nifty herbal amulets. You can find instructions for that project here.

amuletBut there was an additional olfactory activity! In Charmed Life (and, in fact, all the books in the Chronicles of Chrestomanci series) dragon’s blood is one of the most powerful and dangerous substances in the known worlds. It’s described as having a powerful, distinct, and horrible odor, even when it’s dried into a powder.

So while purchasing the herbs for the amulets, I also bought several strong smelling, reddish-brown spices (it was an interesting shopping day, let me tell you). In the end, I decided on chipotle, roast chicory, smoked paprika, hot cayenne, and sumac. I put each spice in a plastic glass with a label. During the program, the kids sniffed the glasses and voted on which one they thought smelled like dragon’s blood.

There was quite a lot of yelling, laughing, and carrying-on, but in the end, we had our winner…sumac!

dragons blood votingIf you haven’t read Charmed Life, or anyone of the other books in the Chronicles of Chrestomani series, I can’t recommend them enough. I love how Diana Wynne Jones writes her characters and create her magic. I love her sense of humor and her amazing descriptions. The Pinhoe Egg is a book I re-read annually, because it’s like visiting family. Conrad’s Fate comes in a close second. It’s a bit like Downton Abbey…with magic!

Crevasse Challenge

crevasse challenge jumpOne, two, three, jump! Are you ready to meet our most popular toddler activity of all time? Ladies and gentleman, may I present…the Crevasse Challenge.

The Crevasse Challenge was one of many activities offered at a large-scale Journey to the Centre of the Earth event we hosted in 2013. The YMCA was one of our event participants, and we wanted their activity to involve both geology and exercise. Rock climbing, of course, was the most obvious choice. But we already had a huge inflatable climbing wall in another area of the event.

climbing wallWe needed something else. Something less vertical. Additionally, the climbing wall had age and height restrictions, so we wanted an activity everyone could try. So it needed to be adventurous, on the ground, with no age restrictions, and still rock related.

What about the challenge of jumping over a big, dark, mysterious crevasse? Perfect!

The crevasse needed to be constructed out of something that wouldn’t rip, bubble, slide, or otherwise become a trip hazard. The solution? Black contact paper. I bought a big 18″ x 75′ roll on Amazon (it was $27 and I had lots left over). We used the contact paper to make a jagged, 18′ long crevasse. Then, we used additional pieces to make smaller cracks branching off the main crack. Here’s the shape of our crevasse:

crevasse challenge outlineIt’s important to mark where the different pieces of the crevasse fit together. That way, on the day of the event, you simply match the pieces, peel the backing off the contact paper, and stick everything in place. We used the matching lettering system below to pair the side cracks with the main crack (the letters were written on the backs of the pieces in permanent marker):

crevasse matched lettersThe crevasse is done. Are you ready to rock? I bought these “riverstones” from Discount School Supply. Not only are they colorful and sturdy, they have anti-slip bottoms. At $70 a set, they are a bit of a splurge (especially since we bought 2 sets). But I considered it an investment in quality and safety. After the event, we donated both sets to the YMCA for further fun.

25276b

Image from Discount School Supply

If the rocks aren’t within your budget, I found some circular “poly-vinyl spot markers”  in the Discount School Supply catalog. They’re made of thick, no-rip vinyl, and I’m assuming they don’t slide around on the floor (definitely test them first). A set of 6 circles cost $15. I don’t recommend cardboard or paper rocks because they’re a potential slip hazard.

After some trial and error, we strategically placed the rocks around the crevasse. Then we took a picture of the rock placement (Katie shot the photo below with the panoramic feature on her phone). The photo allowed us to set up the Crevasse Challenge quickly and easily the morning of the event. In fact, by lettering the backs of the matching crevasse pieces and providing a photo of the rock placement, event volunteers set the whole thing up, without any oversight from us.

crevasse challenge rock placementThe rules for the Crevasse Challenge were simple. Starting on a yellow rock, you had to travel the length of the crevasse and land on the other yellow rock. If you fell off a rock, you had to start all over again (unless you were very young, and then you just climbed back up on the rock and tried again). If older kids wanted to increase the challenge, they had to complete the course only using the large rocks.

The prize for a successful run was a 1.75″ metal carabiner from Oriental Trading Company. Specifically, they are the “colorful key chain carabiner clips.” A pack of 50 costs $12.

carabinersOh my gosh. Kids went nuts. The crevasse! The rocks! The jumping! The carabiners! The Crevasse Challenge was hopping for five hours straight. The only challenge was keeping the course clear of kid collisions. But the YMCA folks were total pros, and we had no accidents.

crevasse challenge 2Big kids tried it, little kids tried it, grown-ups tried it, but the toddlers were they main players. They couldn’t get enough of it! My daughter, who was 2 at the time, spent 45 minutes hopping, jumping, running, and trying different rocks. And just look at this cute little guy!

crevasse challenge 3

If you’d like to try a variation on the Crevasse Challenge, buy blue contact paper. Voila! Instant river rock hopping adventures!