Ah, tea…that most English of meals…but which meal is it?
Well, that kind of depends.
Tea was introduced in England as early as 1635 but didn’t become fashionable until the 1660s, when King Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza. Tea drinking was already established in Portugal, and Catherine brought tea and her beautiful porcelain tea services to enjoy in her new home…and soon, drinking tea was the height of fashion. It remained an extremely expensive luxury item for several decades, but by 1725 a quarter of a million pounds was being imported annually, and tea shops had begun to make their appearance. Tea also began to replace beer and ale as the usual drink of the poor; the abolition of import duties helped this, so that by the beginning of the 19th century, tea was well on its way to becoming the national beverage.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries among the upper classes, tea was often drunk in the evening after dinner, around 9 pm, and served with light refreshments like cakes and sandwiches. When you were eating your dinner at 4 pm, this made some sense…but as hours changed for meals and dinner moved later and later, this habit made a switch…and at some point around the 1830s or so, reputedly thanks to the Duchess of Bedford, it started to become fashionable to have tea and light refreshments in the afternoon instead, to sustain one between luncheon at one or two and dinner at 8:30 or 9. At first it was simply something one did as a quick, informal pick-me-up, but gradually sociable ladies figured out that drinking tea and nibbling delicate cakes with friends in the late afternoon was the perfect opportunity for reviewing the gossip of the day and preparing for the gossip of whatever party or ball would be taking place that night. And thus was born the afternoon tea.
That’s one kind of tea…but there is another—namely, high tea. Most Americans hear this term and assume it means an especially fancy, formal kind of afternoon tea, perhaps with extra-elaborate munchies, but in fact it means the exact opposite. High tea was and is more or less a supper-ish kind of meal consumed by working class families. Tea was certainly drunk, but the food was of a hearty, filling nature like toasted bread and cheese, or kippered herrings, or bacon and eggs, or sausages, all served with copious amounts of bread and butter—no tiny delicate pastries here!
So if you were a young lady in London for the season, your tea would probably be drunk at a friend’s house some time around four, while you nibbled seed cake and planned the evening’s fun…and if you were an apprentice seamstress, you’d have your tea when you got home from work at around six, while you rested your tired feet and enjoying something warm and nourishing.
And that’s tea!