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posted: 9/15/2012 6:04 AM

Tea carts are not everyone's bag

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  • Tea carts were once popular in American homes, but now are out of fashion.

      Tea carts were once popular in American homes, but now are out of fashion.
    SHNS photo

 
By Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson

Q. I think this tea cart is more than 100 years old. What is your opinion of its age and value?

A. Reportedly, the term "tea cart" was first used in 1817, and was just a cart on wheels used to hold a tea service of silver or porcelain that could be easily wheeled from the kitchen or butler's pantry to wherever the tea was to be served.

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It could also be used to hold other beverages, as well as the customary accompaniments for high tea or before-dinner cocktails. Such a device might also be termed a "tea trolley" or "tea wagon."

The service of tea is still an everyday occurrence in most households in the United Kingdom, and it can be quite an elaborate event. In the United States it is much less so, but the tea cart is still found in many American homes, where it is now often used as a rolling bar or as place to display plants.

Some American companies such as the Imperial Furniture Co. (1903-1962) and the Paalman Furniture Co. (1916-1966), which were both located in Grand Rapids, Mich., became famous for their tea carts. Paalman carts in particular could be very fancy. We saw one advertised in 1926 that had Chinese Chippendale fretwork on the legs and painted chinoiserie designs on the drop leaves.

Tea carts or wagons remained popular into the 1930s and even had a revival in the third quarter of the 20th century, when being a good hostess became very important after the privations of World War II. Sadly, this rather elegant accessory has faded from popularity because many younger woman do not find these tea trolleys all that useful or attractive. To them, these carts seem like an anachronism from a fussier past.

Examining the photograph provided, we see from the "tiger striping" on the drop leaves that this particular cart was made at least partially from quarter-sawn oak. This fits in with an origin from the first quarter of the 20th century when quarter-sawn oak was popular with those who liked the so-called "Mission style."

The rest of this tea cart appears to be made from wicker along with what looks to be in the photographs a glass shelf. The large rubber wheels also appear to be from the early part of the 20th century.

The extensive use of wicker and the large rubber wheels suggest to us that this cart was not meant to be used in a formal living or dining room, but was designed for use on the patio. The removable wicker tray is something of a plus, but this, too, says, "garden party on a warm day," not "afternoon tea in the salon with the ladies dressed to the nines with hat and gloves."

In the first quarter of the 20th century when this cart was made -- say, circa 1915 -- there were books showing the woman of the house how to be the perfect hostess; and the ladies of the day strove with tenacity for perfection and elegance both in their homes and in the manner in which they entertained company.

Those days have passed to a certain extent, although we are quite sure there are many ladies (and gentlemen) who still strive for perfection and elegance in their homes and entertainment styles. As we said earlier, the tea trolley is a bit out of fashion, and on today's market a nice example such as this one has an insurance replacement value in the $225 to $300 range.

• Contact Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928.

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