On December 16, 1773, colonists dumped British tea into Boston Harbor, a political protest and iconic event in American history. One hundred and one years later, the nation commemorated the event by doing just the opposite: serving tea at parties across the nation. Some were nostalgic celebrations and others as provocative as the original Boston patriots. The tea party staged in the Capitol Rotunda in 1874, arranged by the Women’s Centennial Executive Committee, was a grand affair that was still talked about decades later.
The party raised money for the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, the first world’s fair hosted by the United States. “Ladies’ committees” like the one that held the Rotunda tea party came about during the Civil War to support charitable causes. Through social events, these groups raised funds to support wounded soldiers, military hospitals, and other casualties and results of wartime. After the war, the ladies turned their attention to sponsoring patriotic events, and to promoting political reforms like civil rights, women’s suffrage, and child labor.
For the tea party, the committee chose a nostalgic and patriotic celebration. It pressed Congress for use of the Rotunda and rounded up an impressive roster of Washington luminaries: the President and First Lady, cabinet members, and Hawai’ian and Navajo delegations. Navy Secretary George Robeson thanked the ladies for their work and “purifying and refining influence.” In one night, the committee raised the modern-day equivalent of $140,000.
A look at a print depicting the tea party gives a sense of the scene. One breathless reporter described the roomful of “masquerading maidens, colored lights and flowers, and all the phantasmagoria of a society bazaar.” The usual airy emptiness of the space was filled with a canopy of flags, and patriotic bunting festooned the frames of the large-scale paintings. Compared with a view of the Rotunda on an ordinary day, shown in another print, it is clear just how much festive flair the party organizers added.
Carvings over one door vanished beneath a miniature ship. Small boys in full sailor costume manned the schooner and sold packets of tea to the crowd. At tables, women donned colonial gowns and wigs to serve tea on tables crammed with 18th-century antiques. To some observers, it seemed as though all the colonial candlesticks and revolutionary relics on the Eastern Seaboard came to Washington. Ladies’ committees from each of the states vied to create the most enticing display. For example, Georgia’s offering, on the left in the print, was “a picturesque temple . . . twined about with rice straw, green sugarcane, and cotton in bloom.”
Of course, tea was the main attraction. A table on the left holds a silver teapot, behind which a young woman stands ready to pour the next cup. Attendees could purchase their cups and saucers. Another anniversary, the centennial of the First Continental Congress, was inscribed on the saucers: 1774 Congress 1874.
Not all American women celebrated the Boston Tea Party with fancy dress fundraisers. Women’s rights activists used it to protest women’s second-class citizenship. The New York suffrage tea party appropriated the revolutionary cry of “no taxation without representation” for their cause. Luminary Susan B. Anthony drove the point home, stressing that “if what was said 100 years ago of the colonists was true, it is equally true to-day of our women.” In the halls of Congress, however, it would be another 43 years before a woman, Representative Jeannette Rankin, arrived to cast a vote as a Member of Congress, and three more years before the suffragists would achieve the goal of full voting rights for women in 1920.
Sources: Baltimore Sun, December 18, 1874; Daily National Republican (Washington, DC), December 18, 1874; Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 2, 1875; New York Times, December 17, 1873; Washington Post, February 6, 1898; Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 1st and 2nd sess. (June 18, 1874, December 17, 1874)
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