Perhaps the greatest English contribution to American society is the traditional afternoon tea. Though it may be considered to be an old tradition, it is actually fairly new. Tea-drinking in general dates back to the third millennium B.C. in China, but it was popularized in England by King Charles II and his wife, the Portuguese Infanta Catherine de Braganza in the 1660’s. When she married Charles, Catherine became the envy of English society. In no time, the women were copying her taste in clothes, furniture, and most notably, her love for drinking tea. Though they were not accustomed to drinking so much tea, they followed her lead and tea-drinking became a regular day-to-day occurrence.
Afternoon tea first appeared in England around the mid-19th century. It was introduced when Anna Maria Russell of Woburn Abbey, 7th Duchess of Bedford, complained of “Having that sinking feeling” in her stomach between lunch and dinner. Dinner in England was becoming increasingly late during this time due to the increase of artificial lighting. The Duchess’s dinner time happened to be around eight o’clock in the evening. There were only two main meals served a day, with seven hours separating them. She would therefore become quite hungry around four o’clock in the afternoon, and as one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, all she had to do was ask and it would be granted to her. When she felt the emptiness in her stomach every day, she would ask for a tray of tea, bread and butter, and some cakes to be brought to her. At first, the Duchess ate this dainty meal in the privacy of her own room, but it soon turned into her afternoon ritual and she began inviting friends to join her in her private rooms. The tea and sandwiches were served on low, fancily-decorated tables, eventually earning it the name “low tea”.
Nearly forty years later, during the 1880’s, afternoon tea ended up being a fashionable social time for the ladies of high society. Women would put on their most elegant gowns, pin up their hair, and don long silk gloves and fancy hats. Though this tea time began as a way for a hungry woman to satisfy her appetite, it ended up as more of a time for ladies to relax and chatter on about the latest gossip, newest fashions, and most recent scandals rather than a time to eat and drink. They would sip their tea and nibble their sandwiches, then go for a lovely stroll in the gardens. Indoor tea parties were served in the drawing room between four and five o’clock, just between lunch and dinner. They had dainty finger sandwiches of roast beef or crisp cucumber, delectable scones with clotted cream and preserves, and sweet cakes and pastries to finish. Tea from India or Ceylon was poured from silver tea pots into fancy bone China tea cups. Important ladies of society would have large gatherings such as tea in the garden, private teas, croquet teas, and picnic teas. Having social teas became all the rage during this time for the wealthy families of England.
The working-class people soon copied the aristocrats and found afternoon tea to be a wonderful way to spend time with friends and family. Their way of drinking tea turned out to be quite different from what the upper-class people were used to, however. While the wealthy sat at tea with beautiful outfits, fancy China, and bite-sized delicacies, the middle-class women would be preparing a hearty meal of tea, cold meats, cheeses, and bread for their husbands as they came home in the evenings. Just because they couldn’t have all of the extra decorations and fancy trimmings, that did not mean that they enjoyed their tea any less. The poor enjoyed many a lovely afternoon with dear people, thankful to have each other and plenty of food to share. They called their afternoon tea “high tea” because of the high kitchen table it was served on.
Traditional high tea has changed much over the years, but it never ceases to lose its charm. Afternoon tea still proves to be a delightful way to catch up with the people we love and to simply escape the realities of life for a short time. Visiting a tea house today is like stepping back in time to the enchanting decade of English excellence. Afternoon tea does not have to be done the traditional way in order to enjoy it; however, anyone can make it their own! Whether or not you dress up, wear big fancy hats, or use fine China, high tea will remain an English tradition that will be appreciated for many more years to come. It will continue to bring people together from far and near, give warmth on a cold day, and create new beginnings for old friends.
There is something so nostalgic about sipping tea from a tea cup, and placing it down gently on the saucer. Such a simple pleasure that brings so much warmth and happiness! It makes one feel that he should be sitting in an authentic tea house in London. This lovely feeling a cup of tea brings was frankly coined by Agatha Christie: “Tea! Bless ordinary everyday afternoon tea!” Pinkies up, and God save the Queen!
-Cienna Fry, 2022