How Afternoon Tea was 'Invented'

By Jane Pettigrew

The English ceremony of Afternoon Tea dates back to the 1840s but rather than being 'invented', it actually evolved out of the rituals and routines that had surrounded tea drinking in Britain before that time.

The English started drinking tea in the late 1650s and as both the brewed beverage and the dry loose leaves were extremely expensive, it immediately became the drink of the royal family and the aristocracy. Wealthy gentlemen drank their tea in London's coffee houses and upper class ladies bought very small amounts of loose leaf tea and drank the brew at home with their friends and family.

The ships that carried the tea from China and Japan to Europe also brought in, as part of their cargo, porcelain tea pots, tea bowls and neat little jars for storing the tea. Like the new exotic drink, these attracted the attention of the rich who bought some for their own use at home. They were stored, not in the kitchens or dining room cupboards, but on shelves in the lady's private closet - a small room near or next to her bedchamber where she received visitors and offered them some refreshment. From the 1660s, that refreshment was usually tea.

Because the tea itself was so expensive, the servants were not allowed to handle the precious leaves and the lady of the house kept it in the little Chinese jars in her closet alongside the tea bowls and pots. When she wanted to serve tea to her friends, a servant would arrange the furniture, set all the tea brewing equipment on a small table and bring in a kettle of boiling water. Then the lady herself warmed the pot, took the little cap of her tea jar, measured the correct amount into the pot and poured on the boiling water. When the tea had brewed, she poured it into the little translucent, handleless, Chinese bowls and served them to her guests.

So when did all this tea drinking go on? The beverage was offered to visitors to the house at almost any time of day (and the house would have been an elegant and expensive town house or a country mansion), but the most important time for tea was after the main meal of the day. In the mid-17th century, dinner was served at any time between 11 am and 12 noon and was a rich, heavy, alcoholic meal that lasted for anything up to 3 or 4 hours. Once all the food had been devoured, the men liked to stay at the table in the dining room and smoke, chat, and drink more wine, ale, brandy or port. (It was not uncommon for men to drink so much in those days that they ended up under the table in a drunken stupor!) So the ladies were expected to withdraw to a smaller closet or boudoir to talk more quietly, sew, brew tea, and generally behave in a more elegant way than their menfolk. When, at about 5 or 6 pm, the men eventually decided that they had had enough of their smoking, drinking, and loud conversation, they would join the ladies for tea in the drawing room or closet. Sometimes they also played cards or listened to some form of musical entertainment until a light supper was served and the guests then departed.

So, right from the earliest days of tea drinking in England in the second half of the 17th century, certain patterns developed which eventually influenced the ritual of afternoon tea in the early 19th and on into the 20th. Taking tea was always associated with elegant rooms set well away from the kitchen, with fine porcelain tea wares, silver spoons, sugar nippers, and kettles, with beautiful tables carved by craftsmen, and with the elegant manners of society ladies - as it was through the Victorian period and still is today. The brewing of the liquor was always the responsibility of the lady of the house (or gentleman if he lived alone), sometimes with the help of the eldest daughter, and was carried out in the room where the tea was to be served. Today of course we brew our tea in the kitchen but it is still the duty of the hostess to pour and serve it. Usually, the only food to be served to accompany the tea was very thin slices of bread and butter. That has developed, of course, into a more elaborate menu but bread, toast, muffins, tea-cakes, crumpets and other bread-like foods are still a very important part of a traditional tea. And, the most important time of day for drinking tea was in the late afternoon - in the early days at the end of the main meal, but (as we all now know) in the 19th century and today between lunch and dinner.

So why did the switch in timing happen? During the 18th century, dinner was served at a gradually later and later time and by the early 1800s, the normal time was between 7.00 and 8.30 pm and an extra meal called luncheon had been created to fill the midday gap. But since this new meal was very light, the long afternoon with no refreshment at all left people feeling rather hungry. The story says that it was Anna Maria, the 7th Duchess of Bedford of Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, who had the idea of asking her maid to bring all the tea making equipment to her private boudoir at 5 o'clock so that the Duchess could enjoy a cup of tea with a slice or two of bread and butter. Anna Maria found this afternoon tea such a perfect refreshment that she soon started inviting her friends to join her in her room for this new social event. And it really was more of a social event than a meal. Ladies did not go to afternoon tea gatherings to eat but to meet their friends, catch up on gossip, chat about the latest fashions and scandals, be seen in the right places among the right people and, in passing, to drink tea and nibble daintily on a small finger of bread and butter or a little sweet biscuit.

Once the trend had been set, all of fashionable society started to hold tea parties to suit almost any occasion - drawing room teas for groups of 10 or 20 visitors, small intimate teas for 3 or 4 friends, tea in the garden, 'at home' teas, tea receptions for up to 200 people, tennis teas, croquet teas, and picnic teas. The growing middle classes imitated the rich and found that tea was a very economical way of entertaining several friends without having to spend too much money. Pots of tea and a few small tea-time treats such as crustless sandwiches, hot buttered toast and scones, little pastries, and a cake or two were all that were required and expected.

And the tradition has lasted until now. Afternoon Tea is still the ideal way to entertain neighbors, friends, and even business acquaintances. It still creates the same elegant, refined, calm atmosphere that was enjoyed by the English during those previous 350 years of tea drinking.