Sanborn tea and cookies: the story behind the tradition

by Emma Guo | 10/6/16 12:00am


Tea and cookies are served at 4pm every afternoon in Sanborn Library.

by Paula Kutschera / The Dartmouth

Every afternoon at 4 p.m. in Sanborn Library, the chime of bells momentarily awakens students from their studies, pulling them away from their schoolwork and into the world of tea and cookies.

Located next to Baker-Berry Library, Sanborn boasts a vast collection of Oxford editions of English and American authors, as well as couches in small niches and large tables where students can study. Reminiscent more of a classic scene from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel than of a real college library, Sanborn transports students back to a different time, allowing them to appreciate the welcoming, nostalgic ambience of old novels while hunkering down with their latest readings and problem sets.

Students who choose to make Sanborn their second home as their go-to study spot typically find solace in the tranquility of the atmosphere, as well as in the study break provided by the distribution of tea and cookies every afternoon. According to Carrie Hiller ’20, “Sanborn Library is exactly what I expected it to be: quiet, cozy and brimming with old books.”

The long-standing tradition of Sanborn tea began as an homage to Edwin David Sanborn, who was most remembered for his tradition of serving tea to students in his home on Thursday afternoons. After the construction of Sanborn House, a large donation was left for the daily continuation of afternoon tea in the library.

These days, Sanborn tea is served less for the purpose of engaging in intellectual conversation than for taking a momentary pause from studying or for the opportunity to escape from the cold. Students can purchase tea or a cookie for 10 and 15 cents, respectively. That being said, if you are running low on change, don’t worry – the tea server will rarely turn anyone away.

While purchasing the materials for afternoon tea is left to Sandra Hobbs, an administrative assistant in the English department, the student server is responsible for making and serving the tea and cookies each day.

Sanborn tea is a well-known and time-honored tradition, and it would not exist without the help of the students who serve the tea. Each day starting at 3:30 p.m., the student in charge of serving the tea begins preparations for the day, which include making the tea, cutting up lemons to serve and taking out the cookies, along with at least 20 tea cups. Around 3:45 p.m., the student enters the library and begins setting up the materials they have prepared for the day. After the bells chime at 4 p.m., the server is left to serve tea and chat with any students and alumni that may visit.

Many students work as tea servers, including Ho-Chun Herbert Chang ’18, who has been serving tea at Sanborn since his freshman year.

“I wanted to find a job on campus, so I just asked the [English] department administrator at the time if there was an opening, and there was — the Sanborn tea server job,” Chang said. “So I sent in an application, and a week later I was cutting up lemons.”

Not surprisingly, many alumni participate in Sanborn tea when they return to visit.

“During homecoming, a lot of alumni return to campus, and my freshman year a couple came with two of their children who were five years old and three years old,” Chang said. “They told me they were coming back for the tea. I found out that as sophomores, they met in Sanborn.”

Professors also take pleasure in participating in Sanborn tea, especially when the infamously cold Hanover winter begins to settle in. One day during the particularly cold winter term of Chang’s freshman year, a professor came in for the typical afternooon tea, and as Chang began pouring, the cup was cold that that it exploded in his hands.

Altogether, nearly 1,000 students and alumni are served annually. According to Chang, the most vacant days are usually Fridays, while the most crowded days in the library are during exam periods and winter term.

Whatever initially brings a student to Sanborn, whether it’s the quiet, cozy atmosphere or the welcoming smell of old books, the traditional tea and cookies will forever be a reason to always come back.