Before Lowell House Masters Diana L. Eck and Dorothy A. Austin, there was the Duchess of Bedford.
Duchess Anna was the first hostess in England to invite her friends over for afternoon tea. Her idea evolved into the British tradition. And in 1930, when Lowell House opened under Master Julian Lowell Coolidge, that tradition came to Harvard.
According to Eck, under Coolidge's successor, Elliot Perkins, "little tea-sandwiches of thin-sliced cucumbers were served." In Perkins' day, Eck says, students came in small groups and Co-Master Mary Perkins poured tea in the living room.
Now, as five o'clock tea in Lowell reaches its 70th year, Eck and Austin open their beautifully decorated residence to the entire House--plus guests--every week. And 100-150 students attend.
"Dorothy and I make a point of keeping Thursdays 5-6 a special time for seeing Lowell students at tea," Eck writes in an e-mail message.
Eck and Austin's predecessors, William H. and Mary Lee Bossert, attracted crowds to the tea with Mary Lee Bossert's renowned baking.
Eck and Austin, however, have turned the task of baking over to Lowell residents.
"Now tea is very much a communal effort," Eck writes.
Lowellians' work yields thinly sliced sandwiches, cookies, brownies, spreads, dips, breads and crackers. Every corner, it seems, boasts a platter of something different. In one room, guests line up to be asked, "How would you like your tea?"
In another, Eck and Austin hold court with a quiet circle, near the piano. Through another door, an enormous bowl of cider has been depleted.
As baking duties have changed hands, the nature of tea goodies has also evolved, Eck notes. Indian chai--delicately spiced tea--and miniature samosas are now many students' favorites.
Some Lowellians have even been known to schedule their classes around that sacred five o'clock tea time.
"It is one place where students can count on seeing one another, seeing tutors and faculty, and seeing us," Eck writes.