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Vanderbilt Tea Traditions

Posted on 05/09/2014 by Jean Sexton

Although "taking tea" often seems like a formal affair, our records show that tea time at America's largest home wasn’t always regimented. “We have photos with the Vanderbilts and guests having tea while lounging outside with their dogs,” said Leslie Klingner, Biltmore's Curator of Interpretation.

Another photo (above) shows George Vanderbilt pouring tea for Edith at Buck Springs Lodge in a very rustic setting. “What this photo tells me is that tea was very much a part of their culture, an integral part of daily activities. They probably served it on camping trips!”

Your tea can be informal as well (although you may not want to invite dogs!).

Children were often invited to tea at the Vanderbilts. “There is a letter from Edith Vanderbilt’s sister Pauline describing her day at Biltmore and talking about the children coming down for tea,” said Leslie. “It was unusual in those days for kids to be invited, but Pauline noted it was a good time to reconnect.”

The Vanderbilts frequently served tea in the Tapestry Gallery. “I like to imagine that in the winter they pulled up chairs to the fireplace,” said Leslie. “And in the warmer weather they opened the doors to the Loggia to enjoy the breezes and views.”

Although the Vanderbilts enjoyed their informal teas, they certainly knew how to host a tea party with the finest china, tea services, crystal, and white tablecloths. They had several gorgeous tea sets, including a Sevres tea service made in France around 1888. The rich turquoise porcelain and floral detailing in shades of blue and gold are hallmarks of Rococo revival style. See this tea set in the Tapestry Gallery in Biltmore House; there are also pieces on display at the exhibition The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad in Antler Hill Village.

A silver tea service is also on display in the exhibition. This Tiffany & Company tea set came to George from his mother and it is engraved with his and her initials. She gifted him with the set—a gracious symbol of hospitality—to serve guests on his private train car. There are also many tea accouterments on display in the exhibition, including strainers and many fine pieces of silverwork, all works of fine art.

For more information about the art of tea or hosting a tea party for Mother’s Day, visit the Inn on Biltmore Estate. You’ll find a mini tea exhibit there. You can also relax and enjoy afternoon tea at the inn, an unforgettable experience sure to inspire great ideas for your party.

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