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by Bob Brooke

It’s 4:00 P.M. and Anna Maria, the seventh Duchess of Bedford of Woburn Abbey in Bedforshire, England, has just rung for her upstairs maid, requesting that she bring a tray of tea, bread and sweet butter, and cakes to her bedroom. She found this late 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 as ladies didn’t go to afternoon tea to eat but to meet their friends, gossip, chat about the latest fashions and scandals, be seen in the right places among the right people. Drinking tea and eating biscuits became almost an afterthought.

What caused Anna Maria’s hunger at this time of day? As it happened, people gradually started eating dinner later in the 18th century as improvements in lighting extended the day. By the early 19th century, dinner time had progressed to between 7.00 and 8.30 P.M., so people began eating an extra meal called luncheon to fill gap. But since this meal was very light, the long afternoon with no refreshment left many feeling a bit peekid.

By the early 1800s, the custom of entertaining friends at afternoon tea had evolved into an elegant occasion with tea, hot dishes, and elaborate sweets served by butlers and maids. The ladies no longer came in everyday wear but dressed in long “tea gowns” and drank tea from delicate porcelain cups.

Domestic writers of books on etiquette and domestic household manuals, such as Hints and Household Taste by Charles Eastlake, prescribed suggested behavior for both hostesses and guests. According to a book called Etiquette by Agnes Morton, published in 1894, women were to “meet informally, chatting for a while over a sociable cup of tea, each group giving place to others, none crowding, all at ease, every one the recipient of a gracious welcome from the hostess.” Morton recommended that guests stay no longer than 45 minutes though afternoon tea often lasted nearly two hours.

Drinking tea wasn’t foreign to the British when Anna Maria set her precedent. They began drinking tea in the mid-17th century. At the time, both the leaves and the brewed beverage were very expensive, so it became the drink of the aristocracy. While wealthy gentlemen drank their tea in London's coffee houses, their wives drank theirs at home with their friends.

Because the tea itself was so expensive, the servants weren’t allowed to handle it and the lady of the house kept it in blue and white Chinese jars locked in a 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 warmed the teapot, measured the correct amount from her tea jar into the pot and poured on the boiling water. When the tea had brewed, she poured it into the little translucent, handleless, Chinese tea bowls and served them to her guests.

The ships that brought the precious tea from China and Japan also carried porcelain tea pots, tea bowls, and the little jars for storing the tea. Aristocratic ladies stored these on shelves in their private closets, usually a small room near or next to their bedrooms.

Traditionally, ladies served tea with milk and sugar, accompanied by an assortment of cucumber, egg and cress, fish paste, ham, and smoked salmon sandwiches on bread without crust, scones with butter, clotted cream and jam, and fruit cake or Victoria sponge cake served from a tiered silver stand.

By the mid-19th century, afternoon tea had become fashionable in America though the tea parties given by American hostesses may not have been as formal as those in Britain. 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.

Once the trend had been set, members of fashionable society started to hold tea parties to suit almost any occasion—drawing room teas for groups of 10 or 20, intimate teas for three or four friends, garden teas, after-theater teas, and tea receptions for up to 200 people.

While afternoon tea used to be an everyday event, nowadays it is more likely to be taken as a treat in a hotel, café, or tea shop, although many Britons still have a cup of tea and slice of cake or chocolate at teatime.

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