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You don’t have to be English to know about “teatime” — though you might have to be to know the details of the institution. Afternoon tea goes by a few names, including “low tea” for the low chairs and tables, “little tea” or even “handed tea” for the way the cups are handed around. Confusingly, it evolved around the same time as another, entirely separate occasion during which tea was consumed with food during the afternoon: “high tea” (which was also called “great tea” or “meat tea”). People did drink tea in the afternoon before “teatime” became a ritual, but it wasn’t until the Victorian era that it really crystallized as a specific event.
So how did this tradition start?
Though teatime emerged as a distinct afternoon ritual in the 1840s, its roots can be traced all the way back to when tea first arrived in England about two centuries earlier, says Jane Pettigrew, an expert on tea history and author of multiple books on the subject.
When tea first came to England in the 1650s and 1660s, from China, it was a luxury item accessible only to the upper classes. Like coffee, it was first consumed in public coffeehouses, says Julie Fromer, who teaches literature at Ithaca College and whose book A Necessary Luxury examines tea in Victorian advertisements and literature. Over the course of the 18th century, costs dropped and popularity increased. In 1711, the East India Company imported 140,000 pounds of tea — enough for about 28 million cups — and before long tea was firmly installed as a classic English drink. And demand increased: in 1791, the East India Company imported some 15,000,000 pounds of the stuff.
By then, even though tea was still not exactly cheap, it had become standard fare even among the poorest. Tea provided a restrained version of excess and a little pleasant luxury. In the second half of the 18th century, tea and sugar “might seem extravagant items in a labourer’s wage,” social historian John Burnett writes in Liquid Pleasures, “but they gave some palatability and variety to a monotonous diet, warmth to cold meals, and some stimulation to fatigued bodies.”
Around the same time, as tea was spreading, it was moving out of public tea shops and becoming something people would drink at home, thus moving into the traditionally feminine domestic sphere. “It was in the 18th century that the tea table became a specifically female place and space within the home,” says Fromer, of tea-drinking’s transition from a public activity to a domestic one. Though some questioned whether drinking tea at home would lead to women gossiping too much or harm their health, by the 19th century it was well accepted that everyone just drank tea everyday. “There were no more debates over whether the tea table was a good thing,” she says. “It was an accepted part of national identity.”
But it wasn’t just a matter of drinking a simple cup of tea.
When tea was first introduced to England, the leaves made the trip from China alongside a whole set of instruments and techniques. There were tea pots, saucers, bowls and other accoutrements that were used in China at the time to brew tea — everything but the sugar, spoons and kettle came direct from China, says Pettigrew, and so did the ritualistic aspect of brewing tea in a certain way. (Tea’s high price also encouraged consumers to treat it carefully.) Properly preparing the tea in the home became a symbol of women’s “role as nurturers of the family,” says Fromer, and was one of the few domestic tasks that even aristocratic women would not delegate to servants.
Alan and Iris Macfarlane write that the tea party was important to the status of women in England and was a rare area in which they were in charge, not men: “She who wields the teapot has a powerful weapon in her hand, and even the most bullying of men will defer to her during that limited period.”
While tea consumption expanded to all classes, it maintained its association with with fine living and good manners, says Pettigrew, and “afternoon tea” was developed in that sphere and would remain upper-class and elegant. (“High tea,” meanwhile, was the heartier meal the working classes would consume when they got home in the evening from a long day: cold meat or fish, cakes and tea.)
Changing meal times are really the reason for afternoon tea, says Pettigrew. Early on, tea was drunk at the end of dinner — the big midday meal — because it was supposed to be good for digestion. Women would withdraw to the drawing room after the meal, leaving men in the dining area smoking and drinking alcohol, before the groups would meet again in the evening. But, among the upper classes in the late 1700s, the afternoon mealtime began to shift later in the day, and kept moving gradually later through the early 1800s, from the afternoon to 6:30 or 7:00 and then even later. To cope with the change, people would eat a “very small, snack-y meal in the middle of the day, which acquired the name luncheon,” says Pettigrew, but “it was very inconsequential, very light, so you still had a very long afternoon with no refreshment.”
Naturally, tea-drinkers with a whole afternoon stuck waiting for their after-dinner cup began to get impatient, considering the end of dinner could now be as late as 10:00 at night.
As the hours until the evening meal stretched longer and longer for the upper classes, “women at home needed another meal to tide themselves over,” Fromer says. So tea moved from an after-dinner social occasion to one that came before dinner.
That brings us to Anna Maria Russell (née Stanhope) the seventh Duchess of Bedford and one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting. She is often cited as starting or promoting the ritual of afternoon tea in the early 1840s, but Pettigrew says that credit is undeserved.
“She’s always credited with inventing afternoon tea, but she did no such thing,” says Pettigrew. “She actually was one of the people that was having little cups of afternoon tea and private tea parties with her friends but it just so happened that one of her friends mentioned in a letter that she was having tea parties… This was a pattern that had already evolved—mealtimes don’t get invented, they just happen gradually.”
Another three or four decades after the Duchess of Bedford’s tea parties, the idea was fully mainstream. By the turn of the 20th century, a more elaborate afternoon tea menu, with scones and sandwiches, had developed as the institution solidified. It also moved beyond the aristocracy, as other classes adapted it to their budgets, houses and friends.
But, while the idea of teatime in the afternoon has stuck throughout the centuries, in some ways it’s a misnomer: people drink tea all the time. As a 1936-7 study of food consumption in Britain found, tea was “universally popular” and “drunk from early morning till late at night in all classes of society.”