The Ritual of High Tea
Dedicated to the ceremony of afternoon tea.
of drinking tea in the presence of company is one of the oldest sustenance rituals. Its roots can be found in many ancient societies and was used for many purposes. Business, celebration, and nourishment are all reasons for participating in the ritual of tea. As legend has it, tea was invented by a Chinese emperor in 2737 BC, when leaves accidentally blew into his pot of boiling water. It took many centuries to make its way to the rest of the world. Europe finally received this elixir in the 1600s as Asian trade routes were carved out. At first only the extremely wealthy could afford the precious leaves. Tea was kept in locked boxes made expressively for that purpose. As the Victorian era dawned in England, tea was a commodity but by the end of the era it formed the foundation for a closely followed ritual of grand proportions. The tea time snack, originally designed by the British, was a way of fighting off hunger pains. The dawn of the 20th century saw a huge business evolving to supplying people with every item and service imaginable for the process of afternoon tea.
The modern tea rituals roots lie with a subject of Queen Victoria. Anna, the 7th duchess of Bedford (1788-1861) was a lady in waiting to the Queen. She traveled extensively across Europe and was quite educated and worldly for her time. The wealthy nobles of the day would eat a big breakfast, a small lunch, and a grand supper at nine in the evening. To counteract what Anna called a sinking feeling late in the afternoon she began asking her servants to bring tea with small cakes and pastries to her boudoir. This snack was cause for much speculation and interest in Queen Victorias court. Anna began sharing the small meal with her friends. She would send out invitations and receive the ladies in her dressing room. Victoria caught wind of the idea and quickly fell in love with it, so much so that a tradition was born. By the late 1840s the Queen was having formal dress afternoon teas daily. These never lasted past 7pm because one needed ample time to change clothing in preparation for supper at 9pm. What a tough life those nobles lead!
What started as a leisure ritual for the wealthy quickly caught on as essential with the working class. At 5pm, immediately following work, the middle class would partake in family tea. The advent of gas lighting brought on longer work days. Breakfast was eaten before the sunrise and a light portable snack was consumed for lunch at ones work station. As per the rules of etiquette, supper wasnt served until 8pm. The eight hours between lunch and supper were tough for a working man to handle. Tea quickly became a wonderful compromise. Meat tea or High tea, as it was called because of the standard table height where it was partaken, became the modern day dinner. The late meal was dropped all together because a meat tea quickly consisted of that as well as potatoes, vegetables, breads, sweets, and of course tea. Tea was the foundation of the evening ritual because it tasted so good that it made the bland foods eaten by the lower classes nicer to consume.
By the late Victorian era, afternoon tea was again mostly a pastime of the idle rich. It fulfilled the purposes of socializing, event planning, introductions, informal business meetings, as well as a perfect platform for gossip which was a major pastime of the day. This 4pm tea ritual became known as Low tea because it was served in the low point of the afternoon. The name is also indicative of the coffee table height of sitting room furniture.
Tea fare included many items. Elaborate bite sized sandwiches that were recently made popular by the Earl of Sandwich as well as a plethora of sweets and pastries were incorporated into these afternoon events. Certain foods became popular during each season of the year. Fruit and berries were eaten in the spring and summer while heavier starch items were reserved for the colder months.
Trays of different items were placed all over the sitting room were tea was served. This allowed the guests to mingle through out the early evening. The Victorians called a tea service a tête-à-tête. This consisted of a teapot, sugar bowl, and a cream pitcher. So many contraptions were invented for the single purpose of tea consumption, such as sterling silver items like the berry scoop and bun warmer. Boiling water was often brought around by servants at regular intervals to replace the cooling water in the teapots. What started out with basic bread and butter items eventually turned into a full blown gourmet snack.
The female wardrobe even expanded to include a new more revealing dress, the Tea Gown.
Tea Gowns, or teagie as contemporary slang termed them, were a significant part of a womans arsenal. It was the definitive item that radiated whether a Lady was fashionable, racy, or frumpy. It allowed a perfect place for the Kimono inspired Asian fashions of the late Victorian age to be tested out. By the early Edwardian period a ladys teagie wardrobe consisted of her most exquisite and expensive fashion items. The diaphanous one piece gown had its roots in the peignoir. No corset was required with this filmy dress but the fine line did hover at respectability. Dressing in a tea gown did have its uses though; a man would call on his mistress at tea time because of the easy access gown that required no maid to put back on.
I recommend that you dear reader take the time to prepare a wonderful afternoon tea for some of your friends. Pick a theme, send out invitations and enjoy the good company. This is a perfect excuse to get all dressed up; as we are all painfully aware of glamorous clothing taking a back seat to comfortable cookie cutter clothing in todays society. You will find a few recipes here
to get you started. If cooking is not your forte, many hotels offer tea to the general public on a daily basis. Fine hotels in England, such as Londons Ritz Hotel, as well as America began offering afternoon tea service in the 1880s. Hotels advertised their elegance by referring to the tea court. The Plaza Hotel in New York city opened its Palm Court in 1907. I offer up this American spot as the definitive Victorian place to enjoy the ritual of high tea.