Mrs. Collis Huntington hosts: “At-Home” Teas on Nob Hill, San Francisco (1894)

by Nancy Armitage

The San Francisco Cable Cars. The Collis Huntington’s Nob Hill mansion was on California
Street in San Francisco, CA.

I’ve have been researching tea parties for a couple decades & I had never heard the phrase: “At Homes”. I didn’t know what it meant, but I found out. In the Victorian & Edwardian times, “At-Homes” were tea gatherings or tea receptions, gentlemen were also invited to these get-togethers. In the big cities like San Francisco & New York City, each neighborhood had a special “at- home” day. At the Collis & Arabella Huntington Mansion on California Street in San Francisco, their at-home day was Tuesdays.

Roses in 1899, check out the lovely “Golden Gate” rose! It looks multi-colored with white, yellow with pink tips. In 1848, Captain John C. Fremont names the San Francisco Bay – “The Golden Gate”. The Golden Gate Bridge was completed in 1937.

The “At-Home” tea menu is described in a book called Consolidated Library of Modern Cooking (1905) ” The menu may include… Tea & Coffee or Tea & Chocolate…2 kinds of dainty sandwiches, baskets or plates of fancy cakes…a dish of fine bonbons…& that Bouillon, oysters, salads, ices, fruit, etc. are not expected”.

Amazing gilded sculpture with Lapis base, red damask wallpaper, & gorgeous marble walls. This was a very Gilded Age look in a wealthy person’s mansion.

High Society ladies had “At-home” cards or “Calling Cards” printed up on fine stationary. These “At-home” cards were the invitation to the “at-home” tea event. They would have their name printed in script writing in the middle of the card. On the left bottom side of the card – a day of the week (their “At-home” day); with their address on the right side of the card. “Mrs. Astor’s At-Home” card had a blank line underneath her name – to write in the date of the “At-Home” & the time “at ten o’clock with RSVP & her address “842 Fifth Ave. NYC on the bottom. Sometimes, the calling card would say “1st Tuesdays 5-7 pm”, meaning every 1st Tuesday of every month that person would host an “At-home” tea at their home.

The hostess would usually host a “At-Home” tea between 4-6 pm or 5-7pm; tea & cakes were served. It is my guess that Mrs. Huntington served much more then tea & cakes. She was kind of the Martha Stewart of fancy tea parties, often over the top. Mrs. Arabella Huntington had some very successful “At Home” receptions in her Huntington Mansion on California Street on Nob Hill in San Francisco, CA. Sometimes, she had 50 or more people to her “at-homes” with very interesting people invited.

Victorians attending a tea or a “At-Home” outside in the sunshine.

An “At-home” reception might have been a small or large gathering of friends or acquaintances. The ” at-home” could be located in the Drawing Room, Parlor, the Salon, or Reception Room and/or Dining Room to serve tea. The Collis Huntingtons had a marvelous “Reception Room” in their Nob Hill mansion with “pocket doors” in the middle. The get-together could start small in a more intimate room & when more people arrived they would open the pocket doors to display another large room – brilliant entertaining technique.

This is a example of Victorian wooden “pocket doors”.

While I was researching the Huntington’s history, I was reading Caroline Huntington’s [Holladay] diarys at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA. She mentions “At-homes” several times in her diary. Caroline or “Carrie” the family called her was the niece of Collis & Arabella Huntington. As a young girl, she wrote in her journals depicting the lives of the Huntingtons in San Francisco, CA. In the 1890’s, the whole Huntington clan lived in San Francisco. Carrie also talked about great adventures they had taking train trips together across the United States of America. Uncle Collis & his clan also sailed the whole family to Europe on Cunard ships.

Sweet Tea Dainties: Petit fours, Opera cakes, and Chocolate mousse tarts, etc.

Carrie also wrote about “Belle’s At-Homes”. So Mrs. C. P. Huntington “Arabella” or (nicknamed “Belle”) hosted many “at-homes” receptions at her various Huntington mansions. In 1879, San Francisco Social Directory, it states that Nob Hill’s “At-home day” were Tuesdays & Carrie’s journal entry’s are also on Tuesdays. It would have been fun for Belle to entertain in her newly renovated mansion at 1020 California Street on Nob Hill.

We know Mrs. Huntington had a great affection for Haviland fine china & pink roses.

Carrie Huntington wrote in her diary: On Tuesday, Feb. 28, 1894, it was Arabella “Belle” Huntington 1st at-home; Carrie writes, “A lot of people called. In the evening, Edward [HEH’s] had a birthday [party] which I attended [HEH & Mary Huntington’s Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA] & won the incher [Game] prize. Mr. Ellicott & take me up there. I spent the night as it was late when the party was over.”

Arabella Huntington’s niece, Caroline Huntington wrote the next month at the same Nob Hill location: “Tuesday, March 7, 1894 San Francisco, CA “Belle’s Day At -Home, about 50 people called amoung others were Miss Bourke [Miss Maude Burke, niece of Horace Carpentier & his $20,000,000] , Prince Poinotonski, [Chas. Casimir Poniatowski] & Haralamant [in charge of the World’s Fair Expo 1894 in SF and located at the DeYoung Golden Gate Park]- the Great Sensations of the Day.”

The tradition of “At-Homes” large & small is explained in a interesting book. It was called Manners & Rules in Good Society by a member of aristocracy written in 1923, published in London & New York. At a large “at-home” the gathering is located in a Drawing Room or Parlor; the tea & food is served in the Dining Room. The large “at-home” entertainment could be up 50-200 people. “At a large “at-homes” the hostess should receive her guests in the Drawing-Room door, & shake hands with each on arrival…the guests should arrive from a quarter-past four (4:15 pm) until half past five (5:00 pm) or six o’clock (6:00 pm)”.

“When tea is served in the Dining-Room, the guests are usually asked by the servant in attendance if they will have tea before ushered into the Drawing Room.” Food consists of “tea & coffee, the latter served from large silver urns….sherry, champagne-cup, claret-cup, ices, fruit, fancy biscuits [cookies] & cakes, thin bread-&-butter [sandwiches], potted game, [tea] sandwiches, etc. Ice plates are used for ices, desserts for fruit & fruit salads.”

Mrs. Huntington was partial to pink & white roses.

The Huntington’s Nob Hill Dining Room could have been filled with all sorts of wonderful dainties. Some foods that Mrs. Huntignton always had a her tea parties was Jordan Almonds, Virginia Peanuts,& Chocolate French BonBon Candies served in special BonBon sterling silver bowls. Sometimes, a punch might have been served like ” Punch Californian” or Huntington Roman Punch.

Punch Californian (1907)

I first saw this refreshing punch on a 1907 menu for the Merchant Club of San Francisco. The club was helping rebuilding the great city of San Francisco after the devastating Earthquake/Fire of 1906. This recipe is adapted from the 1907 rare book of Henry E. Huntington. It was called Paul Richard’s Book of Breads, Cakes, Pastries, Ices & Sweetmeats.

3 qt. Water

2 c. Lemon Juice

2 c. Pineapple, grated

1 qt. California white wine

1 c. Orange juice

rind of 2 Oranges

1 pt. Brandy

1 qt. Orange sherbet or orange sorbet

Mix the water, wine, fruit juice & juices. Freeze in a plastic pitcher. Add to punch bowl, with minced spearmint, & brandy. Just before serving, add orange or sorbet. Make 5 1/2 qts. Recipes: Nancy Armitage

Mrs. Collis P. Huntington (Arabella) purchased a complete set of this Minton (Tiffany & Co.) fine china in white, gold, & turquoise. She might have monogrammed with “CPH” but the proper way is to have it is the “H” in the middle – c H p. This information was published in the San Francisco Call Newspaper on July 4, 1903.

A newspaper article titled: “Monogram Minton a China Craze” tells us about Mrs. Huntington’s purchase. I thought it was humorous that it was written in the newspaper, but it was the sign of the times…. “Mrs. Will Crocker also has a complete Minton set. It has an ivory tint with a raised gold Grecian border. Scalloped knots of gold are inside the border & they break the rigid effect. She has no monogram. This set is the 2nd one ever made after this particular design, the other one being ordered by [Mrs.] Collis P. Huntington[Arabella]. Talk about one-of-a- kind purchases, only two set made in the world. Also, Mrs. Huntington got the full set: meaning Roast Beef Set, Breakfast Set, Midnight Supper Set after the opera. Wow. Mrs. Huntington usually like a set of 12 or more plates when purchasing. She had sets of plateware with 60 plates for larger entertainments.

Mrs. Arabella D. Huntington ( a widowed Mrs. Collis P. Huntington in 1903) bought this large set of Minton plates. They were gold, white, & turquoise plates for her Nob Hill San Francisco Mansion. Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage

We know that Mrs. Arabella Huntington own Blue Transferware & Green Transferware (scallops & bubbles motif) in the Huntington Mansion on Nob Hill. We know that because of a man named Ron Henggeler (a photographer) in San Francisco; who has done an amazing archaeological dig at the former site of Arabella & Collis Huntington’s mansion on Nob Hill. Now, the land is called “Huntington Park”. The property (a whole city block) was donated by Mrs. Arabella D. Huntington herself to the City of San Francisco in 1915. Sadly, after the Huntington mansion was completely leveled in the great San Francisco EQ/Fire of 1906.

We know that Mrs. Huntington served Neapolitan Ice Cream at her “At-Homes” in NYC & SF. This is a lovely fancy way to serve it with raspberries, strawberries & blueberries on top.

Mrs. Arabella Huntington also had a great affection for French Sevres porcelain plateware. At her San Francisco mansion, she also had gold Sevres knives (blue, white, & gold) with birds & roses on them. I assume she probably had a Sevres set of plates (blue, white & gold) to match these gold knives with birds & roses. The knives were found at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, donated by Archer Huntington.

We know of 4 platewares of Mrs. Arabella Huntington at her Nob Hill Mansion in San Francisco. Most likely, a 5th set: Sevres porcelain plate set to match her fancy Sevres gold knives she own. Probably many more, Mrs. Huntington hosted her largest “entertainments” in this house up to 110 dinner guests for large multi-course formal dinners in the “Picture Gallery -Salon”. Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage (from my Huntington journal #52)

A 5th set of Sevres blue gold & white plateware seems obvious that Mrs. Huntington would have to match these beautiful gold knives (below). A 6th set of Sheffield plates at the Huntington Nob Hill mansion could be fancy red & gold set (check illustration).

Mrs. Arabella Huntington’s Gilded Age Sevres gold knives with porcelain handles decorated in blue and gold with ornate birds & pink roses. In my opinion, Mrs. Huntington had to have plateware to match this knives. Knives found at Fine Art Museum of San Francisco, CA, donated in 1927 by Archer Huntington (her son).
In the Huntington Mansion at the San Marino Ranch, the house inventory mentions “Royal D.” plateware set & the remains of Sheffield plate (from SF Huntington Mansion). The Sheffield plate or platter was listed, damaged from the Huntington Mansion on Nob Hill. The red scalloped plate is Sheffield “Elizabeth Sovereign” pattern, a possible pattern of Mrs. Huntington. “Royal D.” could be Royal Doulton or Royal Crown Derby plateware.

Canapes would have been served by the Huntington’s “waitresses”, (kitchen maids). Popular canapes in 1890’s were Canape Lorenzo (a spicy crabmeat bite) & Sardine Canapes. Hot Chafing dishes filled with Lobster Thermidor or Oysters au gratin. Silver trays filled with Tea sandwiches made of chicken salad, egg salad, minced ham; “Bread & butter” sandwiches was popular at the time. also. English cream scones with Chantilly cream or Southern Buttermilk beaten biscuits. Served with orange marmalade or raspberry jam. A 1890’s dessert table could have had numerous tea cakes & treats, like “Gateaux” French cakes, Petit tarts, Southern Pecan Tassies, French Petit Buerre Sable (cookies), & French Opera Cakes, & French Chocolate Bonbons (Chocolate Truffles).

White & Pink tips roses, a favorite of Mrs. Arabella Huntington

Canape Lorenzo (1890’s)

This fancy crabmeat canape was often seen on the menus of fancy hotels in San Francisco like Hotel St. Francis & Palace Hotel. My mother used to make a ladies luncheon entrée that was similar: instead of the bread, she used a English muffin. Add minced celery, onion, green pepper, & scallions to the mix. Then smear all ingredients, with mayo & crabmeat on English muffin. Dust with parmesan cheese & broil until hot and bubbly. Adapted from a recipe in one of Mr. Huntington’s Rare books called Hotel St. Francis Cookbook (1915), I used mayonnaise instead of the cream.

2 shallots

1 onion

3 T. flour (omit)

2 cans Crown Prince crabmeat

baby chives

3 T. butter (omit)

1 1/2 c. heavy cream or mayonnaise

Season with white pepper & cayenne pepper

top with parmesen cheese

12 white bread slices & make small rounds with cookie cutter.

Make bread rounds by pressing 1″-2″cookie cutter into white bread. In a medium bowl add crab mixture. Spread crab meat mixture with a baby spoon on bread round. Top with parmesan cheese. Place bread rounds on cookie sheet. Bake 450 for 15 minutes until the bottom of the bread is toasted in golden brown. Place hot canapes on a doily lined silver tray & pass around to guests. Remember to have cocktail napkins.

A ornate sterling silver basket that could have been filled with all sort of tea dainties Wrapped in a damask napkin could have been warm scones. Photo credit: Nancy Armitage at Huntington Library San Marino, CA

In the 1890’s, “At-home” receptions were also popular in England & America. But in America, the tea menu could be quite extensive. In England, the tradition started as just “Tea & Cake”; but in America Gilded Age, these reception teas became quite elaborate. Heartier hot dishes were provided for guests (gentlemen were invited) such as Lobster Thermidor, Tuna a la King, & Shrimp or Lobster Newburg.

Lobster Thermidor

This is a adapted recipe from one of Mr. Huntington’s rare books: Hotel St. Francis Cookbook (1919). Chef Victor Hirtzler states “cut a live lobster in two lenghthwise, sprinkle with olive oil, season with salt & pepper put in oven & bake”. This passage made me laugh, I kept thinking a lobster with 6 legs & 2 big lobster claws trying to bite & claw me. A more practical way is pop the 3 (1 1/2 lb.) live lobster in boiling water & cook for 8-10 mins or until the shell turns bright red. Take the cooked boiled lobster out of water, let cool & cut lobster meat into pieces.

Lobster Thermidor Sauce

4 shallots

2 t. parsley, minced

2 t. French tarragon, minced

1 t. beef stock, cube

2 t. dry Colemans mustard, dry powder

1 c. (Aunt Penney’s) white cream sauce or make a roux

1/2 c. butter

good meat gravy or sherry


grated white cheddar or parmesen cheese

In a casserole, add a little white sauce to the bottom, then place cooked lobster shells. Add cut up lobster meat to the shells. Pour the rest of the sauce on top. Sprinkle cheese on top. Broil until golden brown & bubbly. Recipe: Nancy Armitage

The Palace of Fine Arts, it has 17 acres in the marina district in San Francisco, CA It was built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific exhibition which all the Huntingtons supported & donated to.


HEH Coll. MS 1210 (Caroline Huntington’s Journal; San Francisco Nob Hill At-Home (1894)

San Francisco Call Newspaper Volume 93, Number 35 (B/W photo of the fine bone china of Mrs. Collis Huntington’s.

Book: Hotel St. Francis Cookbook (1919) by Chef Victor Hirtzler

Book: 1879 San Francisco Elite Directory

Article: “Golden Gate bridge fast facts” by CNN Library CNN US

Book: Stephens, Autumn, The Essential Handbook of Victorian Entertaining, San Mateo, CA Bluewood Books, 2005

Book: Manners & Rules of Good Society by a member of the Aristocracy London Frederick Warne & Co.Ltd and New York 1923

A stunning light blue French Sevres tower stand with angels.The small lidded pots would be filled with petit French Chocolate mousse; Mrs. Huntington loved ornate Sevres porcelain pieces & angels.

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