Cambric tea is a "children's tea" made primarily from sugar, hot water, heated milk or cream and perhaps a dash or two of strongly brewed tea. This weak tea generally serves as the beverage of choice in a child's tea party, or becomes the introduction to stronger beverages such as regular tea or coffee.
Cambric tea derives its name from a resemblance to cambric cloth, a very thin white fabric often used to make lightweight garments. It is believed that the French were the first to develop this tea, most likely as an alternative to the strong teas generally reserved for healthy adults. Cambric tea was deemed suitable for young children, invalids and the elderly, since it did not contain any caffeine or other troubling ingredients.
The popularity of cambric tea during the 18th and 19th centuries was largely due to the availability of its basic ingredients. While adults often packed supplies of coffee and tea during their long treks towards the West, these beverages were considered too harsh for children. Fresh milk or cream, however, could be obtained from dairy cows on many farms, and loaf sugar could be purchased in mercantile stores along the way. Therefore, cambric tea became a popular beverage among pioneer children such as Laura Ingalls Wilder.
There are a number of variations on the basic cambric tea recipe, although the basic ingredients generally remain constant. A small amount of sugar is placed in a cup, followed by either hot water or heated milk. This mixture is stirred until the sugar has dissolved, and the cup is filled to the top with either hot water or heated milk. If brewed tea is used at all, it is added at the last minute and stirred carefully. Heated cream can also be used as a richer substitute for the heated milk if desired.