Afternoon tea was created by Anna, the Seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the year 1840 as a way to quell the inevitable hunger pangs between lunch and dinner. This ritual became so popular among affluent classes that it became one of the mainstays of the British way of life.

Prior to the introduction of tea into Britain, the English had two main meals, breakfast and dinner. Breakfast was ale, bread, and beef. During the middle of the eighteenth century, dinner for the upper and middle classes had shifted from noontime to an evening meal that was served at a fashionable late hour. Dinner was a long, massive meal at the end of the day.

Tea was initially served between three and four o’clock. It was normally taken in the gardens, dining room, or parlor. The household’s finest china, sterling and linens were utilized in carrying out this ritual. The menu normally included tea sandwiches, cakes, scones, cookies, and assorted pastries and of course, Devonshire cream.

As the tea tradition expanded from the Victorian elite to the working class, the High Tea was developed. High Tea was a combination of afternoon tea and the evening supper; the tradition soon became the main meal for many. The name comes from the fact that the tea was taken at the high time of day, four to five o’clock and it was enjoyed from high stools in the tea shops or standing; at a corner stall, a buffet table or a counter.

During the second half of the Victorian Period, known as the Industrial Revolution, working families would return home tired and exhausted. The table would be set with any manner of meats, bread, butter, pickles, cheese and tea. None of the dainty finger sandwiches, scones and pastries of afternoon tea would have been on the menu. Because it was eaten at a high, dining table rather than the low tea tables, it was termed "high" tea.

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Anna, the Duchess of Bedford (1788-1861) is credited as the creator of teatime. Because the noon meal had become skimpier, the Duchess suffered from "a sinking feeling" at about four o'clock in the afternoon. At first the Duchess had her servants sneak her a pot of tea and a few breadstuffs. Adopting the European tea service format, she invited friends to join her for an additional afternoon meal at five o'clock in her rooms at Belvoir Castle. The menu centered around small cakes, bread and butter sandwiches, assorted sweets, and, of course, tea. This summer practice proved so popular, the Duchess continued it when she returned to London, sending cards to her friends asking them to join her for "tea and a walking the fields." The practice of inviting friends to come for tea in the afternoon was quickly picked up by other social hostesses.

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The Ritual of High Tea

Dedicated to the ceremony of afternoon tea.

The tradition of drinking tea in the presence of company is one of the oldest sustenance rituals. Its roots can be found in many ancient societies and was used for many purposes. Business, celebration, and nourishment are all reasons for participating in the ritual of tea. As legend has it, tea was invented by a Chinese emperor in 2737 BC, when leaves accidentally blew into his pot of boiling water. It took many centuries to make its 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 tea time snack, originally designed by the British, was a way of fighting off hunger pains.

divBy 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 where tea was served. This allowed the guests to mingle through out the early evening. The Victorians called a tea service a tête-à-tête. This consisted of a teapot, sugar bowl, and a cream pitcher. So many contraptions were invented for the single purpose of tea consumption, such as sterling silver items like the berry scoop and bun warmer. Boiling water was often brought around by servants at regular intervals to replace the cooling water in the teapots.


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