What’s the Deal With Victorians and Tea?

Think Victorian Entertaining, and you likely think “tea party.” But just why, exactly, was tea and the rituals surrounding it so popular in the nineteenth century

Though the Chinese had been hip to the medicinal and energizing qualities of tea for thousands of years, Europeans slogged through the Dark Ages and even the Renaissance without tea — or any caffeinated beverage for that matter.  As late as 1660, the English and the early English colonists in America had never even heard of tea, but within just a few years, it became a favorite import among the upper classes.


Afternoon Tea Party

Afternoon Tea Party, Mary Cassatt. Source: Wikimedia Commons

During tea’s early years in England, most folks regarded it as a medicinal tonic. By 1740, everyone of any means in England and in the American colonies was drinking tea. Even though it was cheaper and more plentiful by then, the English regarded it as a exotic commodity that required special rituals that became the “teatime” much beloved by Victorians. Unlike the Chinese, who drank their tea plain, the English added milk (an old English favorite) and sugar (a New World import) to their tea.

At first, the English drank their teas out of bowls like the Chinese did. But burnt hands being a problem, tea cups with handles began to appear around 1750. And as the Industrial Revolution revved up, mass produced tea cups and saucers from Wedgwood and Royal Doulton began to appear on English tea tables.

In the 1840s, “afternoon tea” became not just tea, but a meal served among the upper classes between 4:00 and 6:00, about the time one craves both caffeine and a light snack. Anna Maria Russell, a friend of Queen Victoria who also served as the young queen’s Lady of the Bedchamber is credited with turning tea into a small meal involving sandwiches and pastries. Eventually, most Victorians — rich and not so rich — were partaking of some version of afternoon tea.


Anna Maria Russell

Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, Inventor of “Afternoon Tea.”

Tea makes “the cup that cheers but not inebriates,” according to Isabella Beeton, who wrote Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management in 1861. The popular manual contains not only detailed instructions for making tea (“Allow 1 teaspoonful to each person, and one over”) but also a recipe for a “large breakfast-cupful of tea,” which involves a beaten, “new-laid egg” as “an excellent substitute for milk or cream in tea.”

So as the fall chill descends on all of us, why not enjoy a cup of tea as the Victorians did? I’ll pass on the egg, but I’ll take a cucumber sandwich and a scone to go along with it. How about you?

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