Summer marks the start of peak season for tourist tearooms across the Puget Sound in Victoria, B.C., but the formal tea tradition has largely vanished from libraries and reading rooms, perhaps the last stateside bastion of the daily ritual.
"I regret we no longer have a formal tea time," e-mails Diane Ducharme, archivist at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Ducharme adds scholars are now invited to take tea alone in the staff lounge.
Appointed tea times flourished in academic settings in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The imported Anglo habit was considered emblematic of the civility and intellectual discourse that colleges and universities sought to cultivate.
"It has become part of the program to invite friends of the Library who are occupied with the more active life of the city to make it a social visit," reported a history of Brown University's library, published in 1914. "When a pamphlet advertising an early experiment in woolen manufacture or some old fire insurance regulations was acquired, two or three people for whom it had an especial interest were asked to look at it at tea time."
The practice still thrives at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where researchers and staff members are beckoned to the tea room every afternoon. "Informal exchanges at the afternoon tea promote discussion and can lead to new approaches toward research problems, teaching, and analysis," the library's website explains.
"It is a charming custom," Ducharme writes.
But charm couldn't keep tea time on the increasingly crowded daily calendar at the University of Washington's library. Tea time apparently faded sometime around World War II, student reference specialist James Rosenzweig says. "I dimly recall seeing comments about a tea time in the U.W. Libraries in library newsletters from the 1940s or 1950s," Rosenzweig e-mails.
In informal interviews, Rosenzweig couldn't find any library staffers who recalled an official tea time. "In asking around, the responses I've gotten range from 'No, but wouldn't that be nice?' to 'Don't they do that in fancy private boarding schools?' to 'We don't let any liquids near the manuscripts anymore,' " he writes.
At the University of North Carolina, where tea has also been discontinued, librarian Susan Bales has fashioned her own solution. "I bring hot tea for my own lunch," she writes.