"Taking tea" evokes images of luxury as well as exotic Chinese leaves dating back to the early 1700s.

Back then, Britain held sole rights on the China tea trade. Only wealthy gentlemen were allowed to sip tea. They did so in exclusive tea houses. Not until the 1830s did women and the not-so-rich first enjoy the beverage.

Tea could be taken in only the most proper accouterments. Teapots, urns and kettles, trivets, cups and saucers, canisters and caddies,spoon trays and carrying trays, carts and stands, ladles, jugs, skimmers, tongs and more were routine in tea drinkers' homes.

Whether poured from sterling pots into porcelain cups, or from stoneware intochina, the ritual of serving tea was, from the start, an occasion.

Such are the makings of the tea services, some of which date back to 1800, on display now through Sept. 29 at the Howard County Historical Society museum in Ellicott City.

The services, on loan from area residents and the Maryland Historical Society, were made in Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany, Japan, England and China. "A few were evenmade right here in Baltimore," said Bettina Jenkins, museum director, who has some of her own pieces on display.

Many of the several dozen sets are family heirlooms that have collected admiring nods and dust but have had no tea in them for years.

They range from blue pressed-glass to doll-size versions of services to classical and neo-classical styles.

The various services show how "styles have changed with the times. Tea services developed from the fancy and fragile to those with stronger lines and understated elegance," Jenkins said.

Perhaps events in history are responsible for the changes. "But maybe," Jenkins notes with a smile, "people just got bored with things."

George Bayless Jr. of Ellicott City, assistant treasurer of the county historical society, is proud of his wife's contributions to the exhibit.

An intricately carved silver service "was given to me by my aunt as a gift. It had belonged to (my aunt's) grandmother," Matilda Bayless said. Aunt Charlottie Lycette Jones "called the set a demitasse, but it's also referred to as a Queen Anne Tea Service."

Also from the Bayless collection is a gold dinner plate from a servicemade for Mrs. Bayless's great-grandparents' 50th anniversary celebration.

"My mother had about six plates from the collection," Mrs. Bayless said, "and gave each of her children one." Centered on the etched plate are the initials of her great-grandparents, Isaac Martin Cate and Charlottie Abbot Cate.

On loan from Marion Johnston of Ellicott City is a service called "Blantyre," a crisp white 1915 service rimmed in shining gold. On the bottom of each piece reads the logo "Made expressly for Hutzlers," the local department store.

The Misonservice of the 1850s is unusual in that it is two designs.

"If you hold it up to the light just right you can see that it had a different design, originally," Jenkins said. The German Mison company created many services for Germany's kaisers. Legend has it that one of kaisers didn't like the way this set looked and ordered the company to start over. Upon close inspection, one can see the coat of white enamel beneath the new design of pink roses.

Each pattern has its own name. For example, "Federal Gold," circa 1920, is a mustard yellow setwith a colorful cornucopia on a navy background. Its sturdy, modernistic style contrasts sharply with "Rose Medallion", from the early 1800s, its delicately flowered pink blossoms hand-painted on white china. Pencilware, so-called for a design that appears to have been etched onto milky white glass, also dates to the 1800s.

The only tea cart in the exhibit belongs to Elizabeth Ramsburg of Marriottsville. Made in Baltimore, the antique holds a tea service owned by the museum's director.

The cart's slide-out glass shelf holds a tea canister,a silver spoon and tongs, just as it might have back in the early 1900s. The pale green, flowered service on its top shelf, "Lowestoft," is ironstone. Created in England in the 1940s by Adamsware, this is probably one of the newest sets in the museum's exhibit.

"One of the most interesting pieces on display," Jenkins said, "is the slop bowl. Isn't that an inelegant title for something included in the elegant service of tea?" But slop bowls weren't just a matter of fashion --they were necessary.

Also known as waste bowls, they allowed guests to dump leftovers before their cups were freshened and were used to hold the hot water that kept the tea in the pot hot.

Jenkins noted that two tea service items are missing from the exhibit: a teapoy,or large tea caddy on a stand, and mote spoon, used to skim tea leaves that had slipped through the spout.

In addition, the mote's long, pointed handle had the inelegant task of unclogging tea leaves that got stuck in the spout of the pot.

The Boston Tea Party caused many patriotic Americans to cease drinking tea. True ladies of the flag banned it, and all accompanying services, from their homes. The Colonials turned to coffee.

Nevertheless, tea never vanished from North America and in recent years has gained in popularity.

Becoming stylish again are tea rooms and tea parties, with some hotels and restaurants serving up afternoon tea, with fingertip sandwiches and pastries. Twice a month, for example, high tea is served in Howard County's Oakland mansion.

Howard County Historical Society Museum hours are 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays or by appointment.

Information: 461-1050.

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