The drinking of tea while nibbling tiny sandwiches is an indelible image of English life. One would probably assume that “tea time” is a necessity deeply entrenched into English history, dating so far back that it has become written into the genetic code! Well, not necessarily.
A brief history of the magical tea leaf~
The first European to encounter tea (as far as what is recorded) was Father Jasper de Cruz, a Portuguese Jesuit, while traveling as a missionary in 1560. Gradually, over the subsequent century, tea was imported from the Orient. The cost, however, was outrageous, and only decreased as trade routes became less arduous. Popularity of the beverage grew as the tea leaves crept westward in stages, until finally reaching Paris in 1636. From here tea quickly became a fashionable drink, so prevalent that Madame de Sevigne (1626-1696) often mentioned tea in her famous chronicles of the French aristocracy—
Saw the Princesse de Tarente, who takes 12 cups of tea every day… which, she says, cures all her ills. She assured me that Monsieur de Landgrave drank 40 cups every morning. ‘But Madame, perhaps it is really only 30 or so.’ ‘No, 40. He was dying, and it brought him back to life before our eyes.’
The founding of the British East India Company by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 opened trade to the East, but it would not be until somewhere in the mid-1650s that tea would reach England. King Charles II had developed a passion for tea during his years of exile in Holland, bringing the custom back with him when he assumed the throne in 1662. He expanded the East India Company’s focus on tea as a major import. Almost immediately tea was added to the menu of coffee houses throughout England, tea mania spreading as a wildfire. Queen Anne chose tea as the royal drink of choice (replacing ale) in 1700, thus establishing once and for all the importance of the beverage to English society and culture.
An interesting side note: Tea created a controversy of sorts with many praising the health benefits while others claimed it was harmful, too expensive, and may even lead to moral decay! Many of the tax issues surrounding tea import and export were due to the varying opinions leading to major debates in Parliament. Politicians have always been the same, haven’t they? LOL!
Controversy or not, the love of tea prevailed. Yet, as common as tea became during the 1700s, it did not replace coffee as the preferred warm beverage. Furthermore, the drinking of tea was not attached to a particular time of day until the latter decades of the 18th century. Here is how that portion of the history transpired: Working class folks started drinking strong tea as part of their evening meal of meats, side dishes, breads, cheeses, and desserts. Typically, this was their main, full-course meal of the day, taken as soon as they returned home from a long day of labor, usually without a break for food. It came to be called “meat tea” or “high tea” – the latter term because it was consumed at a high, dining-type table, and not because it was a fancy meal, as we now see the term used.
Afternoon tea – or “low tea” due to being drank while sitting on chairs in front of low tables laden with scones and pastries – originated during the reign of Queen Victoria. One of the young queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, is credited with creating the afternoon tea party atmosphere. It is said that she suffered from “a sinking feeling” late in the day since the two meals traditionally taken at that time (luncheon and then a very late dinner) were spaced so far apart.
Fascinating! So, what does this history lesson mean for the Regency Era image of ladies sipping tea in the afternoon? There is no doubt that tea was a popular beverage by the Regency years. Certainly people of all classes drank tea, but probably no more so than coffee, cocoa, or the various alcoholic options. Tea Gardens, such as Ranelagh and Vauxhall in London (established around 1733) popped up all over the place with dancing and entertainments enjoyed while drinking tea along with other beverages. Exclusive “Tea Shops,” now an integral part of British life, did not exist until the Aerated Bread Company opened one in 1864. I could not find a single reference to an afternoon “tea time” being a customary part of Regency life. Every reference gives that credit to the Duchess of Bedford, although there is not a precise date known other than somewhere in the 1840s.
Within the texts of Jane Austen’s novels the drinking of tea is mentioned numerous times, but at various hours of the day and not associated with a standard activity or ritual. I think we are safe in asserting that tea and snacks may have been consumed in the afternoon from time to time before Duchess Anna, but not necessarily as a formal tradition. So, while we cannot honestly attribute strict adherence to afternoon teatime during the Regency, it is abundantly obvious that tea consumption was extremely popular. The links noted below give more information, and the painting I’ve shared above reveal the popularity of tea in Europe dating back to the 1600s. To see more such paintings, click over to this excellent article, which also includes a terrific history: History of Tea on 18th Century American Woman
Tea in Eighteenth-Century Britain – an entire website devoted to the research of tea in England