The History of Tea



While tea dates back almost 5000 years to ancient China, Great Britain was one of the last of the sea-faring nations to be introduced to it. By 1650, Americans were already drinking tea, yet because of the Cromwellian Civil Wars, the first tea sample did not reach England until approximately 1652-1654.

Tea quickly replaced ale as the national drink of England. In 1699, Englishmen were drinking only 40,000 pounds of tea a year. By 1708, the annual average was 240,000 pounds! The price remained artificially high due to trade monopolies, so tea was often placed in locked chests called tea caddies.

By the 1800s, tea rivaled beer in popularity, even amongst the poor. It was a hot item to warm the often cold meals of the indigents, and boiling the water made it a safe drink.

Although tea is always associated with the English, and vice versa, the beverage has only been an afternoon habit since about 1840. Before that, it was only ordered after dinner when the ladies and gentlemen gathered in the drawing room. By the 1860s, five o'clock became the social ritual for tea, and by 1877, there was even a special costume for it--the tea gown.

Tea soon became a custom in English households--from nursery to drawing room, from middle-class family teas to upper-class "At Home" events. It served to satisfy the stomach between the two o'clock luncheon and the eight o'clock dinner. A 'family' tea included such foods as sardines, potted meats, muffins and crumpets, and was served in the drawing room. If sandwiches were served, the bread was thin, with butter, jam or honey to spread on it. The tea was brewed by the mistress, the butler and footmen having brought her the necessary tools--silver tea caddy, teapot, kettle and heater, and teacups.

At Home Teas

"At Home" teas in the upper-class establishments were social events, often by invitation only. They were a chance for ladies and gentlemen (the few males who attended) to exchange gossip, plan future soirees and be introduced to new acquaintances. A hostess had to be very careful about the latter, however. She could only introduce a lady to another if both parties wished for it.

Guests arrived from a quarter past four until half past five. At the height of the Social Season, the most pressed ladies usually only stayed for a quarter of an hour, as they were on their way to another 'five o'clock tea.' These teas were grand enough for a buffet table to be set up with refreshments. Cakes, thin bread and butter, fancy biscuits, ices, fruits and sandwiches comprised the food, while big silver urns dispensed tea, coffee, wine claret cup, sherry and champagne-cup.

In early Victorian days, sandwiches were made only of ham, tongue or beef. By the 1870s, cucumber sandwiches were being served regularly. The hostess presided over a small side table near the main buffet. There, she dispensed the ice creams and water ices that had been prepared many hours earlier. But just as the hostess would never make an unwanted introduction, nor would she even think of serving ice creams or water ices in tall ice glasses. Rather, ice plates and paper cups were used. And the guests reciprocated good manners by never asking for an alternative beverage other than what the hostess had provided.

High Tea

It is also necessary to distinguish between 'afternoon' tea and 'high' tea. The difference is bound up by times and forms of meals. Afternoon tea was eaten before an evening dinner--about four o'clock--and was a polite little snack. Afternoon tea usually consisted of cakes, biscuits, bread and butter and tea. The custom began in the 18th century as a way of satisfying people's appetites between meals. Throughout the century, dinner got later and later.

High tea was eaten after a midday dinner--between five and six o'clock--and was likely to be a main meal. High tea evolved from the 18th century dinner, and eventually replaced it amongst the fashionable. (Dinner was then served as late as eight o'clock.) Another term for "High tea" is "meat tea," as the meal was generally served with meats and other dishes. A typical menu at High tea would consist of Roast pork, stand pie, salmon and salad, trifle, jellies, lemon-cheese tarts, sponge cake, walnut cake, chocolate roll, pound cake, white and brown bread, currant teacake, curd tart and cheeses. While tea was the main beverage, coffee and cocoa were sometimes served at high tea.

Nursery tea was at 4 o'clock. Cake, bread and butter and jam was the usual nursery tea. An iced sponge cake might be served if it was one of the children's birthdays. The parents would join them on this occasion also. Tea in the nursery would be the children's evening meal. They did not dine with the adults.


Tea-Rooms saw a revival in popularity in the 1880s, both in England and America. They were places for refreshments where hot meals, cakes, bread and pastries were available. They continued to be popular beyond the end of the 19th century, and also provided venues for 'tango teas' during the 1920s. Tea-Rooms were also popular because they were the first socially acceptable places ladies could refresh themselves without male escorts. Tea or high tea remained popular as an evening mean through the Second World War and into the 1950s.


Considering tea is such an important part of the British tradition, it requires very little effort to make. Tea leaves, boiling water and five to ten minutes of steeping time is all a good cup of tea requires. Yet, with as important as tea was, it is little wonder tea services came into existence as the proper way to brew and serve tea. The Victorians called this a tete-a-tete service. It consisted of only three pieces--a teapot, sugar bowl and cream pitcher. In the late 19th century, it was usually ceramic, but services could also be silver.

To brew tea, hot water was poured into the teapot and allowed to sit a few minutes to warm the pot. The water was then poured out, tea placed into the pot, and boiling water poured over the tea. This was steeped five to eight minutes, the tea leaves drained, and the cup of fresh tea served. Only one round of tea was made at a time, as tea loses flavor rapidly. Extra cups were made with fresh tea.

For more information on this topic, see The Victorian Kitchen by Jennifer Davies, available for purchase in our on-line bookstore in the non-fiction section.

Also see the Researching the Romance page of Literary Liaisons.

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