The tradition of drinking tea with others can be traced back to many ancient societies. There were many reasons for participating in the ritual of taking tea including business, celebration, and nourishment.
Legend suggests that tea was invented by a Chinese emperor in 2737 BC, when leaves accidentally blew into his pot of boiling water. However tea took many centuries to make it’s way to the rest of the world. Europe finally received this elixir in the 1600’s as Asian trade routes were carved out. At first only the extremely wealthy could afford the precious leaves. Tea was kept in locked boxes made expressively for that purpose. As the Victorian era dawned in England, tea was a commodity but by the end of the era it formed the foundation for a closely followed ritual of grand proportions.
The modern tea ritual’s roots lie with a subject of Queen Victoria. Anna, the 7th duchess of Bedford (1788-1861) was a lady in waiting to the Queen. She traveled extensively across Europe and was quite educated and worldly for her time. The wealthy noble’s of the day would eat a big breakfast, a small lunch, and a grand supper at nine in the evening. To counteract what Anna called a “sinking feeling” late in the afternoon she began asking her servants to bring tea with small cakes and pastries to her boudoir. This “snack” was cause for much speculation and interest in Queen Victoria’s court. Anna began sharing the small meal with her friends. She would send out invitations and receive the ladies in her dressing room. Victoria caught wind of the idea and quickly fell in love with it, so much so that a tradition was born. By the late 1840’s the Queen was having formal dress afternoon teas daily. These never lasted past 7pm because one needed ample time to change clothing in preparation for supper at 9pm.
What started as a leisure ritual for the wealthy quickly caught on as essential with the working class. At 5pm, immediately following work, the middle class would partake in “family tea”. The advent of gas lighting brought on longer work days. Breakfast was eaten before the sunrise and a light portable snack was consumed for lunch at one’s work station. As per the rules of etiquette, supper wasn’t served until 8pm. The eight hours between lunch and supper were tough for a working man to handle. Tea quickly became a wonderful compromise. "Meat Tea" or “High tea”, as it was called because of the standard table height where it was partaken, became the modern day dinner. The late meal was dropped all together because a meat tea quickly consisted of that as well as potatoes, vegetables, breads, sweets, and of course tea.
By the late Victorian era, afternoon tea was again mostly a pastime of the idle rich. It fulfilled the purposes of socializing, event planning, introductions, informal business meetings, as well as a perfect platform for gossip which was a major pastime of the day. This 4pm tea ritual became known as “Low tea” because it was served in the low point of the afternoon. The name is also indicative of the coffee table height of sitting room furniture.
Tea fare included many items. Elaborate bite sized sandwiches that were recently made popular by the Earl of Sandwich as well as a plethora of sweets and pastries were incorporated into these afternoon events. Certain foods became popular during each season of the year. Fruit and berries were eaten in the spring and summer while heavier starch items were reserved for the colder months. Trays of different items were placed all over the sitting room were tea was served. This allowed the guests to mingle through out the early evening.
These days, sadly, afternoon tea is usually saved for special occasions, where it is taken at a hotel or a cafe to celebrate a birthday or anniversary. But why wait? Simply get out the tea pot, bake some scones and cut the crusts off your sandwiches it's 'high' time we resurrected this lovely tradition!