By Andrea Ledwell
“No more cambric tea.” are the words that launch Emily’s Quest, the third and final novel in L.M. Montgomery’s series about the aspiring writer from Prince Edward Island. I spent a lot of time, in the pre-internet days of my youth, wondering, what on earth is cambric tea?!
Opening page from Montgomery, LM, Emily's Quest, McLelland and Stewart, 1927
From reading many books set in the 19th century, I was familiar with cambric, a cotton used in dressmaking. What did tea have to do with the fabric? It was easy to figure out, from the context of Montgomery’s text, that cambric tea was for children. In Emily’s Quest, the switch to regular tea was a tacit acknowledgement that Emily Starr, the title character of the 1927 book, had become an adult.
Cambric tea, according to culinarylore.com, was a drink given to children in the 19th and early 20th centuries, made most often with a splash of tea, in hot water, with milk and sometimes sugar. Also known as nursery tea, or milk tea, it was coined cambric tea because, like the fabric, it was light and thin. It is suggested it was first used mid-century, in 1859, but there is no definite confirmation of its origins. Claimed to be coined in the US, it can also be found referenced in fiction and non-fiction sources from both Canada and the UK.
British illustrator Kate Greenaway was famous for her depiction of children in the late 1800s, including frequent depictions of nursery and garden tea parties.
Cambric tea was also featured in American author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, and like Montgomery, described it as a childhood drink, especially in winter months, when warm water and a dash of tea gave the younger children in the Ingalls family a bit of energy.
“At noon Ma sliced bread and filled bowls with the hot bean broth and they all ate where they were, close to the stove. They all drank cups of strong, hot tea. Ma even gave Grace a cup of cambric tea. Cambric tea was hot water and milk, with only a taste of tea in it, but little girls felt grown-up when their mothers let them drink cambric tea”. (The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder).
The Long Winter tells the story of how the author’s family endured the treacherous Prairie winter months of 1880-81, where many almost died from cold and starvation. It makes sense that the Ingalls children needed the warmth and energy of a hot caffeinated drink.
Another definition of cambric tea can be found in the publication Practical Sanitary and Economic Cooking Adapted to Persons of Moderate and Small Means, written by Mary Abel for the American Health Association in 1890. In the chapter on gruels, in which cambric tea is described as a non-caffeinated drink, Abel writes “Milk, except for children, can hardly be looked upon as a drink, but diluted with hot water, and sweetened, it has already been christened for the children as ‘cambric tea’, and it is no bad drink for their elders.”
Indeed, milky tea was always considered a good drink for the sick and the elderly. In a more sinister sense too, “Cambric Tea,” a dramatic short story written in 1928 by British crime writer, Marjorie Bowen, a young physician, Bevis Holroyd, is called down from London to the bedside of a new patient, where his patient accuses his young wife of lacing his cambric tea with arsenic. In the story, it seems that this had been a commonly known way for unhappy London wives to rid themselves of ailing husbands!
It is hardly uncommon to think of giving an ailing person a bit of watered down, or milky tea, as a way to soothe and comfort them. But it might seem odd to modern parents to think of serving hot caffeinated beverages to small children. I think about this, when I consider how my childhood was filled with steaming cups of tea, especially if one was suffering from an upset stomach. In our house, tea and toast was the best medicine.
Poem by E.L. Sylvester from the December 1893 issue of St. Nicholas Magazine, a popular American children's monthly (illustrator not credited)
It’s possible the tea I remember from my own childhood was a version of cambric tea. I certainly do remember it being a light colour and served with sugar. But unlike Emily Starr, there was no specific date or time in my life that I can recall graduating to a real cup of tea. The pot of tea after meals was such a constant in my life, it feels like I started drinking it at birth.
To this day, while I prefer my tea black and I take my coffee with non-dairy options, if I’m feeling under the weather, or in need of any kind of comfort, it is always milky steeped tea I turn to, because in the end, is there anything better than a good cup of tea?
Andrea Ledwell is living in Toronto, and given the year of COVID lockdowns and not getting to visit her beloved home province, she has been drinking a lot of tea. Follow her on instagram @petrycraft or at andrealedwell.com