A Gift Across the Seas: Betty Washington’s Silver Tea Set from Her Uncle Joseph Ball

Couz. Betty                                                     Stratford by London 2nd [Nov] 1749
            I have sent you by your brother Major Washington a Tea Chest; and in it Six Silver Spoons, and Strainer, and Tongs, of the Same. And in one Canister 1/2 L. [pound] of Green Tea, in The other a Pinch Bohee: and the Sugar box is full of Sugar ready broke: So that as Soon as you get your Chest you may Sit down and drink a Dish of Tea.
            I read your Mother’s letter, give my Love to her, and all your brothers, & sisters; and to Rawleigh Travers, & Mrs. Cook, and Peter Daniel and his wife. We are all well I thank God; and wish you allso. My wife and Daughter Join with me in Compliments.
I am                                                                                                               Your Loving Uncle
To Miss Eliz. Washington                                                                                                                              
nigh the Falls of Rappahannock
By [fav.] of Major Lawrence Washington

In 1749, one year before her marriage to Fielding Lewis, Betty Washington received a valuable gift – a silver tea set and other tea equipment – from her Uncle Joseph Ball in England. Tea equipment at this time was still expensive and the tea ceremony was reserved for upper class individuals. By providing Betty with equipment for such an important ceremony, Joseph Ball was helping prepare his niece for success in the gentry class. He provided silver teaspoons, a strainer, tongs, and a tea canister– four of the necessary pieces of equipment for the tea ceremony. Other items needed for the ceremony included a teapot, slop bowl, milk or cream container, sugar container, cups, and saucers.[i] Mary Washington provided these pieces for Betty while she lived at Ferry Farm, using them to teach her daughter how to host the important ceremony.

The tea ceremony was a popular social event in 18th-century American culture. First and foremost, hosting or attending a tea party was a symbol of class.[ii] It was typical for gentry class individuals to participate in this leisure activity as a way to deepen or forge relationships within their community. Only an individual who was part of this class could afford the time and money required to learn the social graces and equip the table for the ceremony. The Washingtons worked hard to project an image of gentility through their material consumption. Participation in the tea ceremony was essential for this image. Mary took the time to “bequeath gentry-level domestic culture and etiquette to her children,” keeping them in leisure class circles.[iii]

An English Tea Party (c. 1730) by Joseph Van Aken. Credit: Wikipedia

Within the leisure class the tea ceremony was considered, “as much an instrument of sociability as was a bit of music or conversation.”[iv] With its rules that dictated everything from table arrangement and conversation to order of events, the ceremony was complex. Mastery of the ceremony, especially for women, was key to one’s reputation within social circles. Mary and Betty Washington used the intricate event to maintain the family’s social standing and to interview suitors for Betty. As the oldest daughter, Betty was trained for this ceremony from a young age. She would likely have been the host of numerous tea parties at Ferry Farm before her marriage. Perhaps even using the silver tea set from her uncle during some of the events.

Replica teapot.

The social custom of the tea ceremony revolved around the teapot, thus earning it a spot at the center of the tray or tea table.[v] The archaeology department at Ferry Farm recently produced a replica teapot for display in an upcoming exhibit on 18th-century tea practices. This replica will serve as the centerpiece for the exhibit and be surrounded by archaeological artifacts and contemporary examples representative of the Washington family’s tea practices. The exhibit can be viewed through one of the windows into the Archaeology Lab starting December 1. Add George Washington’s Ferry Farm to your list of places to visit during the holiday season to see this small tea exhibit!

Gillian Both, UMW ‘22
Fall Fleming Smith Scholar

[i] Rodris Roth, Tea Drinking in 18th-Century America: Its Etiquette and Equipage (Washington: Tea Trade Mart Publishing Co., 2017), 24.

[ii] Ibid., 1.

[iii] Laura J. Galke, “The Mother of the Father of Our Country: Mary Ball Washington’s Genteel Domestic Habits,” in Northeast Historical Archaeology 38 (2009): 33.

[iv] Roth, 23.

[v] Roth, 49.