History of Tea Time
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.
Afternoon tea may have been started by the French. According to the monthly newsletter called TeaMuse, in the writings of Madame de Sévigné (1626 to 1696), one of history’s greatest letter writers on life in 17th Century France:
It’s a little known fact, but after its introduction to Europe in the 17th century tea was tremendously popular in France. It first arrived in Paris in 1636 (22 years before it appeared in England!) and quickly became popular among the aristocracy. . . Tea was so popular in Paris that Madame de Sévigné, who chronicled the doings of the Sun King and his cronies in a famous series of gossipy letters to her daughter, often found herself mentioning tea. “Saw the Princesse de Tarente [de Sévigné wrote]… 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.’ . . . Madame de Sévigné also reported that it was a Frenchwoman, the Marquise de la Sablière, who initiated the fashion of adding milk to tea. “Madame de la Sablière took her tea with milk, as she told me the other day, because it was to her taste.” (By the way, the English delighted in this “French touch” and immediately adopted it.)
1600 - Queen Elizabeth l (1533-1603) granted permission for the charter of the British East India Company (1600-1858), also known as the John Company, on December 31, 1600 to establish trade routes, ports, and trading relationships with the Far East, Southeast Asia, and India. Trade in spices was its original focus, but later traded in cottons, silks, indigo, saltpeter, and tea. Due to political and other factors, the tea trade didn’t begin until the late 1670s.
1662 - King Charles II (1630-1685) while in exile, married the Portuguese Infanta Catherine de Braganza (1638–1705). Catherine’s dowry was the largest ever registered in world history. Portugal gave to England two million golden crusados, Tangier and Morocco in North Africa, Bombay in India, and also permission for the British to use all the ports in the Portuguese colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas, thus giving England their first direct trading rights to tea.
As Charles had grown up in the Dutch capital, both he and his Portuguese bride were confirmed tea drinkers. When the monarchy was re-established, they brought this foreign tea tradition to England with them. Her influence made tea more popular amongst the wealthier classes of society, as whatever the royals did, everyone else wanted to copy. Soon tea mania spread swept across England, and it became the beverage of choice in English high society, replacing ale as the national drink.
The reign of Charles II was crucial in laying the foundations for the growth of the British tea trade. The East India Company was highly favored by Charles II. Charles confirmed its monopoly, and also extended it to give the Company unprecedented powers to occupy by military force places with which they wished to trade (so long as the people there were not Christians).
1663 - The poet and politician Edmund Waller (1606-1687) wrote a poem in honor of Queen Catherine for her birthday crediting her with making tea a fashionable drink amongst courtiers:
Venus her Myrtle, Phoebus has his bays;
Tea both excels, which she vouchsafes to praise.
The best of Queens, the best of herbs, we owe
To that bold nation which the way did show
To the fair region where the sun doth rise,
Whose rich productions we so justly prize.
The Muse’s friend, tea does our fancy aid,
Regress those vapours which the head invade,
And keep the palace of the soul serene,
Fit on her birthday to salute the Queen
By 1700, tea was on sale by more than 500 coffee houses in London. Tea drinking became even more popular when Queen Anne (1665–1714) chose tea over ale as her regular breakfast drink. Anne’s character was once portrayed as a tea-drinking, social nonentity with lesbian tendencies.
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 of course 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.
According to legend, one of Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) ladies-in-waiting, Anna Maria Stanhope (1783-1857), known as the Duchess of Bedford, is credited as the creator of afternoon 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.