Tea and Sympathy: A Prescription for Nineteenth Century Invalids

A Convalescent by James Tissot, 1876.
(Sheffield City Art Galleries)

A cup of tea is the cure for any ill. And, in times of shock, the more sugar the better. This maxim was as true in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as it is today. There was no illness, personal loss, or otherwise calamitous event to which tea could not be applied with sympathy—and vigor.

Much of the historical advice about administering tea in times of trouble was given in relation to invalids. An invalid could be suffering from any manner of affliction, from emotional distress to real or imagined physical illness. In her 1906 publication A Handbook for Invalid Cooking, Mary Boland, a cooking instructor at Johns Hopkins Hospital Training School for Nurses, calls tea “a nerve tonic” and “a curative agent.” It was recommended for anyone who needed to be refreshed and re-invigorated. According to Boland:

“It is good for soldiers, hard-working people, travelers, and others who are much exposed to the rigors of climate.”

Cup of Tea, Spoon, and Lemon by Pierre Auguste Renoir, 1909.
(Private Collection)

For invalids, tea was not merely a cure-all. It was a reassuring ritual. To that end, in her 1885 book The Invalid’s Tea Tray, Susan Anna Brown stresses the importance of aesthetics. For invalids especially, no chipped mugs need apply. As Brown explains:

“The first requisite in serving the meals of an invalid is absolute neatness. Spread a clean napkin over the salver; use the prettiest dishes you have; and if you can offer nothing better than a toasted cracker and a cup of tea, let everything be good of the kind, and daintily served.”

The tea itself was a more complicated matter than the quality of the tea cup. There were teas for every imaginable complaint. As mentioned above, hot black tea with lots of sugar was a panacea. For other ailments, there were beef teas, mutton teas, peppermint teas, violet teas, and horseradish teas. Some were not really teas at all—not in the strict sense. For example, for “cases of great extremity,” the 1881 edition of Household Words offers the following recipe for Cold Drawn Beef Tea:

“Mince a pound of rump steak very fine, put it into a basin with a cover, pour over it half a pint of cold water and let it stand a quarter of an hour, then stir well together and allow it to stand for another quarter of an hour. Drain off the liquid it is ready.”

The resulting “tea” wasn’t very appetizing, either to look at or to taste. For this reason, Household Words recommends the tea brewer “keep the patient in ignorance of the nature of this beef tea” through the addition of “a few drops” of food coloring.

5 o’clock Tea by George Dunlop Leslie, c. 1874.

Other teas were far more palatable. In most cases, the tea was an infusion of boiled water and dried leaves or flowers of a particular plant. For example, violet tea was made from the dried flowers of wood violets, “lime flowers tea” was made from the blossoms of the lime tree, and spearmint tea was made from dried spearmint leaves. Some invalid teas were compounds of various flowers, fruits, and herbs. In her 1853 publication The Invalid’s Own Book, Lady Mary Anne Boode Cust provides the following recipe for Compound Chamomile Tea:

“Take twenty camomile flowers, the rind of half a lemon peeled thin, and four cloves; pour a breakfast-cup of boiling water upon them, and let them stand closely covered all night. In the morning strain off the liquor, and take a wine-glassful half an hour before breakfast.”

Speaking for myself, in times of stress or illness, the simplest tea is the best. Last week, my elderly cat Sapphire passed away. Afterward, a family member made me a cup of Darjeeling tea with lots of sugar. I can’t say that it worked magic on my grief, but it was certainly comforting enough to inspire this article.

I leave you with a picture of Sapphire as he was in October—a happy senior citizen sunning himself in the window. He was my companion for nearly half my life and is very sorely missed.

Sapphire
(2002-2019)
Mimi Matthews is the USA Today bestselling author of The Matrimonial Advertisement, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law.

Sources

Boland, Mary. A Handbook for Invalid Cooking. New York: The Century Co., 1906.

Brown, Susan Anna. The Invalid’s Tea-Tray. Boston: J. R. Osgood and Co., 1885

Cust, Lady Mary Anne Boode. The Invalid’s Own Book: A Collection of Recipes from Various Books and Various Countries. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1853.

Household Words: A Weekly Journal, Vol. 1. London: Charles Dickens & Evans, 1881.


© 2015-2019 Mimi Matthews

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Vickie
Guest
Vickie

Tea and sympathy – always a good combination, especially when we have lost a beloved pet. Heartfelt condolences..

Sarah Waldock
Guest
Sarah Waldock

Deepest Sympathy, Mimi. It is always so hard to say goodbye. Tea is a universal panacea. We lost our Kelly recently.

Mary V. Thompson
Guest
Mary V. Thompson

I am so sorry to hear about Sapphire. My current housemates include a husband and two Persian cats–one six years old and the other seventeen. Within the last few years we lost a 17-year-old Maine Coon mix and a West Highland White Terrier who was three weeks shy of his 18th birthday. My sincere sympathies.

Marg. Parsons
Guest
Marg. Parsons

Dear Mimi, I’m am so sorry to read about your sweet Sapphire. I had not realized you had a cat but when I imagined you writing, there was always a kitty close at hand. I guess the purr just came through your writing. Please accept my sincere condolences.

Sarah Waldock
Guest
Sarah Waldock

of course it is, and you wouldn’t have it any other way, because your grief is an expression of your love

C. Lee
Guest
C. Lee

My condolences for the loss of Sapphire. I hope your memories of him and the knowledge that he had a wonderful life with you are a comfort.

Tory Ferrera
Guest
Tory Ferrera

So sorry to hear about Sapphire. I too turn to tea for comfort during hard times and find the routine of making a good pot of tea is almost as soothing as the comfort of a hot cup of tea itself. Thank you for this lovely article.

Laurie Brown
Guest
Laurie Brown

I’m so sorry for your loss.

Ellen Borowka
Guest
Ellen Borowka

Oh, Mimi… lots of love and virtual hugs to you! It is so hard to lose such a precious member of the family, but I can see how happy she was (and still is!) I will think of you and your kitty when I have my tea.

Fiona Ingram
Guest
Fiona Ingram

Rest in peace, Sapphire, after a long life well lived and in which you were well loved. I love tea and cats so I can completely sympathise with this blog post.

Lydia
Guest
Lydia

My condolences, Mimi. It’s always hard to say goodbye to a pet.

I had no idea that there had ever been such a thing as beef tea. Interesting.

Gloria
Guest
Gloria

Very interesting article spurred on by a sad event. You will never forget your companion but in time, the pain will dull.

candy
Guest
candy

Oh no! So sorry for your loss.

Mary Beth Crocker
Guest
Mary Beth Crocker

My heart breaks for you, and I send my sympathies. It is so excruciating to lose a furry companion… I’ve lost three kitties and a dog in the past five years, and with each one, I’ve written my memories in as much detail as I can. We always like to think we’ll remember everything, but we just cannot. It’s a comfort to go back and read them. Please take care.

Brandy
Guest
Brandy

My deepest sympathy on the loss of dear Sapphire. A cup of tea can never replace our loved ones, but it does soothe.
My own sweet Deuce, a snow corn snake, is 20 now. Every day begs the question, and I dread that final day.

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