There is something to be said about us Brits and our tea. No matter who is asked, if an association needs to be made between the British and, well… anything, it is almost always tea. This is one stereotype that we do indeed still live up to. There is nothing more comforting on a chilly afternoon than settling down on the sofa with a piping hot cup of tea.
Yet, this tranquil habit many of us comply to, sets us apart from the tea drinkers of the 17th century. What we take for granted as a common drink used to spur us throughout the day, was once viewed as a great luxury. Nowadays, when you enter a friend’s flat and make yourself a drink, the cupboards are overflowing with an abundance of tea of all sorts of flavours and supposed healing powers. There’s peppermint for relieving abdominal gas, liquorice as a laxative, thyme as an antiseptic and rooibos for fighting signs of aging! Once upon a time, however, tea drinking belonged to a different area entirely; it was an event in itself.
Upon its first arrival in England in the mid 1600’s, tea was so expensive it was restricted to the houses of the prosperous. This is where the notion of the tea party comes into play; friends, mothers and daughters gather together to gossip and drink tea – something we no doubt relate to today – yet these lucky ladies had appearances to maintain even within the bounds of their own home. A woman’s sense of self-worth came from portraying herself as a Grande Dame, showcasing her domesticity whilst entertaining and enjoying the company of friends. Tea parties were an opportunity to portray themselves as civilised and refined, in contrast to the connotations of relaxation we attribute to sipping on a cuppa. Women were expected to not only behave in a certain way, but there were also guidelines on “the way to take tea and how to stand correctly.”* (I should note, contrary to popular belief, this does not involve the extension of the pinkie finger!)
Now, one couldn’t simply indulge whenever they pleased with a cup of the good stuff! Tea was stored in a wooden box: the tea caddy. The primary use of this was to keep tea leaves fresh, yet beware, most were kept locked! By the 18th century, tea was very heavily taxed which resulted in a series of tea theft. Due to the expense, the mistress of the house would lock the tea away in the caddy to prevent her maids from helping themselves and sharing in the delight. Through an increase in importation and smuggling however, an abundance of tea made its way over to England. The lower classes were suddenly able to follow suit of Afternoon Tea, but in an altogether different mood. The wealthy relished in an excess of tea and cake between meals, known as ‘low tea’ literally due to sitting around low tables. For the poor, it was not uncommon for this to become their main meal of the day around a dining table, thus known as ‘high tea’.
Nowadays, all pretences are dropped when it comes to the ‘who, what and where’ of tea drinking. Generally speaking, it’s relaxation time. Across London there are many places to visit for Afternoon Tea. Whilst this has become commonplace, it seems more like a toast of appreciation, raising a glass – or perhaps a mug – to the tea drinkers of the past. We have progressed to a time wherein every (desirable) flavour of tea is at our fingertips. From medicinal to fruity, a cup of tea has grown beyond the Traditional British. From its introduction to Britain in the 17th through to the 21st century, the attitudes surrounding tea have been flipped on its head and shifted almost entirely to its opposite. Despite this, there is no doubt what tea will always be: Quintessentially British.
Header image: “Summer Afternoon” (Theo van Rysselberghe, 1901)