Sometimes history springs a surprise on you. I was glancing recently through some eighteenth-century newspapers when I discovered something quite strange. An edition of the “Ipswich Journal” from November 1720 had a lengthy piece of social satire right on the front page, before the first section of news. It would be much like finding “The Times” today had given over its whole front page to an article from “Private Eye”.
The piece is much too long to reproduce here in full, so I’ll skim over the first part, which explains the set-up, and quote just the essentials.
The article claims to report a tea-party, including both men and women. This was one of the reasons why tea-drinking became so popular. Coffee houses were generally men-only places. Tea houses welcomed women too and tea could easily be made at home, further increasing its choice as the best beverage for mixed social gatherings. And though tea was expensive and highly taxed, the same leaves could be used several times, whereas coffee grounds cannot be used again.
At this tea-party, various ‘persons’ were present, whose names revealed their presumed role in proceedings. They included ‘Mrs Tittle-Tattle’ and ‘Scandalia’, as well as the highly fashionable ‘Monsieur A-la-mode de France’, whose exaggerated attachment to all things French and his fake French accent are heavily mocked, as in this exchange.
Hereupon a Gentleman of the Company seeing him so Bigotted [sic] to French Modes, ask’d him, if the French Whores were better than English? Oh! O! Sir, said he, much finer by a great deal, dey are not so Proud as de English Whores are, dey will lye-down to any Man for a Livre, and yours ask half a Crown, and pick de Pocket too.
Eventually the fellow is laughed out of the company, having tried to claim hangman’s ropes in France were made of silk and hung people without them suffering slightest pain!
Subjects of Conversation
Nothing else discussed at this tea-party of nearly three hundred years ago would be out of place in any modern tabloid. It included:
… Who thrust their hands under an Hoop-petticoat, as Madam was coming down Stairs? Who kiss’d a young Virgin in the dark, and would have done something more, but was prevented by a sudden coming of a third Person? Who lay with my Neighbour’s Wife, and with much ado escaped being catch’d? and several such stories; all which ‘Scandalia’ learn’d immediately, and spread them about the Town, tho’ the Persons were wholly Innocent on whom they laid the Charge.
The piece, running to a second page, then ends with a lengthy poem on the topic of ladies drinking tea, from which I will quote a single verse.
Let the Wits of the Town,
With their scurvy Lampoon
If they dare, provoke our Passion;
We’ll revenge our own Wrongs
With the power of our Tongues,
And Punish their Reputation.