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Two (Or Many More!) for Tea

I have spent the last many months, with the help of a great group of Library Science students, transcribing the letters Marie (Maye) Steele wrote to her husband Sam. During the course of their twenty-nine year marriage, they had many opportunities to write letters to each other, due to Sam’s frequent absences from home. They were apart when Sam was in the Yukon heading up the policing of the Klondike Gold Rush; apart again when Sam fought in South Africa during the Second Boer War with Lord Strathcona’s Horse; separated for awhile when Sam returned to South Africa to join the South African Constabulary; lived separately at times in the Canadian cities of Montreal, Calgary, and Winnipeg (with Marie and the children playing catch-up to Sam’s military appointments); and finally apart again when Sam left Canada to lead the Canadian Second Contingent during the First World War. This, as stated, created a lot of letter writing moments!

Something that has struck me as interesting, in reading Maye’s descriptions of her daily activities in her letters to Sam, is the importance of social calls. Whether in Montreal, Calgary or Winnipeg, a significant part of Maye Steele’s life revolved around going for tea, and receiving guests to her home for tea. It reflects, no doubt, the social status Maye enjoyed; while the Steele’s would never claim they were rich, they did enjoy a lifestyle that meant servants were employed to help with the running of the home; young women were employed as occasional seamstresses; and Maye never sought paid employment outside the home.

The social calling seemed at times quite structured; certain days of the week were designated as going out days, while other days were reserved for receiving guests. Maye and her mother had printed calling cards made with their names on them, to be left at the homes they visited. The tea receptions varied in size, and the number of women attending a tea seemed to reflect upon the status of the woman hosting the tea – the greater the number attending the tea, the higher it seems was the social status of the hostess. Maye often comments in her letters to Sam on the slights she feels when she is not invited to a particular tea or home, and conversely reports her pleasure or disappointment at the attendees of the teas she  hosts.

Pictured here is a page from Maye’s ‘calling book’ with a list of names under the heading “calls returned”; other pages in the book list “calls received”. This list of names is from when the Steele’s lived in Winnipeg, ca, 1909, written in Maye’s handwriting and giving nod to the importance of a social ritual that gradually lessened as Canadians faced the reality of an approaching world war.


From Marie (Maye) Steele's calling book, ca. 1909


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