This month on Around the Table, we will learn about the Folger Shakespeare Library’s tradition of teatime. Since renovations recently began at the Folger, the Library’s afternoon tea has also undergone some changes in order to keep the Folger community together. I had the opportunity to speak to Leah Thomas and Haylie Swenson about the teatime tradition. Leah and Haylie both recently joined the Folger Institute staff and thoroughly enjoy afternoon tea breaks!
Leah completed an MA in Art History at UNC Chapel Hill. She worked for the Smithsonian as an Education Specialist before joining the Folger Institute as a Program Assistant in early 2019. Leah enjoys the constant stream of Ceylon Tea brought by her partner’s family from Sri Lanka; her favorite cookies are ones containing chocolate. Haylie joined the Folger Institute as the Program Assistant for Scholarly Programs in September. She holds a PhD in English from George Washington University and is the author of Wild Things, a series about animals in early modern life and culture for Shakespeare & Beyond. Haylie’s favorite tea is English Breakfast in her Dolly Parton-inspired “Ambition” mug, and her favorite cookies are gingersnaps.
Could you tell Recipes Project readers about the Folger Shakespeare Library’s tradition of teatime?
Afternoon tea is one of the Folger’s most cherished traditions. The practice of serving tea at the Folger began in 1936, according to the annual report for that year. Director Joseph Quincy Adams’ description of tea at the time is, well, interesting:
No use has ever been made of the Founders’ Room with its charming atmosphere of Elizabethan times. But this year we started the custom of serving tea there each afternoon (at 3:30 o’clock) in the English manner, with the young ladies of our staff acting in turn as hostess.
Speaking as two of the current “young ladies of our staff,” we are very glad that some things have changed. The main purpose, of tea, however, remains the same:
To bring together the scholars who come to us from various places, in order that they might meet one another socially and also come personally to know the members of staff. The experiment has proved to be of the greatest value, not only in building up a spirit of friendliness that permeates the entire Library, but also in promoting a free discussion of the research problems under investigation. Those discussions are always stimulating, and often lead to suggestions that are highly profitable.
Although we’re no longer in the Founders’ Room, tea is at 3:00 (not 3:30), and nearly 100 years have passed, researchers and staff still consider afternoon tea an essential foundation of the Folger scholarly community.
Why is this kind of community-building so important at the Folger? Do scholars and staff find it useful and meaningful?
Folger tea serves two essential purposes. First, it allows researchers to learn from and be inspired by each other’s work. One of our past Folger Fellows, Peter Sherlock, describes how “the simple medium of a table, a hot drink and a biscuit engendered lively discussion … What are you working on? How are you doing your project? Have you thought of this? Do you know that? It was at tea that friendships and research partnerships were forged through that most basic human activity, conversation.”
Second, by providing a space for readers to talk to each other, Folger Tea helps to ease the sense of isolation that can come along with long-form research. Anyone who has ever engaged in scholarship knows that it can be a lonely business. Researchers spend long hours grappling with difficult questions and trying to make complicated arguments clear, and that’s tough to do if your only company consists of voices from the past. It’s nice, towards the end of a day studying, for example, 16th century recipe books, to spend some time having tea and cookies with living humans.
Because the Folger tea room is now closed, due to renovations, the Folger is hosting a virtual tea. Tell us about it! Who can drop in? (and could you include a little bit of general information here about the renovation, as well?)
We are so excited to introduce a new tradition of #FolgerTea for the Twitter community during our renovation. The Folger’s renovation project, which began in early 2020, will expand public spaces, improve accessibility, and enhance the experience for all who come to the Folger. The researcher experience, in particular, will benefit from new ergonomic furniture, better lighting and internet connectivity, and access to collaborative, multi-purpose study rooms. Not to mention, a communal space for enjoying wine and coffee in the Great Hall!
Until we can gather for that drink and chat in the Great Hall, we invite the scholarly community to gather virtually for #FolgerTea. Every Thursday at 3:00pm EST, @FolgerResearch opens tea with a live thread. Participants reply to the thread using the hashtag, along with a picture of what they’re drinking and an update on what they’re reading, writing, or plotting for their current research project. This is a space for people to make new connections, check in with friends, offer advice, give reference suggestions, and post silly GIFS. At exactly 3:30pm EST, the iconic tea bell rings to signal the close of #FolgerTea. As in life, we encourage everyone to ignore the bell.
The virtual #FolgerTea is open to anyone who wants to drop in for a bit of scholarly discussion. We would love to hear from scholars, researchers, grad students, artists, theatre professionals, educators, Folger staff, museum workers, librarians, etc. The interdisciplinary nature of Folger Tea is a huge part of what makes it so special! We’re also delighted when we hear from “official” Twitter handles such as other institutions and university departments, or from groups of people who are gathering for things like transcribathons, conferences, or scholarly programs. For people in other time zones who want to participate–feel free to chime in later!
What kinds of interesting things have been Tweeted so far?
So far, we’ve learned that the James Joyce community has a fussy citation style, the Smithsonian has a useful collections resource called “Learning Lab,” and a researcher wrote a poem about Folger Tea in 1945. We have heard from scholars who are writing conference papers, dissertation chapters, novels, fellowship applications, course syllabi, and essays. It is especially exciting to see photos of the rare materials scholars are working on elsewhere (minus the tea, of course!). #FolgerTea is also a great place to hear news and updates about #FolgerOnTheRoad offsite programs, dispatches from #FolgerFellows, and opportunities for scholars to gather.
Is there anything else we should know about #FolgerTea?
We routinely award #FolgerTeaBonusPoints for photos that include cute animals alongside your beverage of choice. Fun mugs also receive honorable mentions. In fact, Haylie tracked down and bought her current mug after someone tweeted a photo of it during #FolgerTea!