Friday, April 6, 2012

Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea, also known as "low tea," is typically served in the mid-afternoon and it was traditionally served on low tables, hence its two names. Afternoon tea was considered to be a ladies' social occasion. 

Legend has it that afternoon tea was started in the mid-1800s by the Duchess of Bedford. Around this time, gas or oil light was introduced in wealthier homes, and eating a late dinner (around eight or nine PM) became fashionable. At the time, there were only two meals each day -- a mid-morning, breakfast-like meal and the other was an increasingly late dinner-like meal.

The story goes that the Duchess found herself with a "sinking feeling" (likely fatigue from hunger during the long wait between meals) and decided to have some friends over for assorted snacks and tea (a very fashionable drink at the time). The idea of an afternoon tea gathering spread across high society and became a favorite pastime of ladies of leisure. Later, it spread beyond the highest elites and became more accessible for some other socioeconomic groups.

 Third-Class Titanic Tea Cup and saucer {via}
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 one’s work station. As per the rules of etiquette, supper wasn’t 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. 
First-Class Tea Cup {via}
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. {via}

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 where tea was served. This allowed the guests to mingle throughout 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”. {via}

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 woman’s 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 lady’s 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. {via}

Our Titanic Tea, this coming weekend, was mentioned in the March/April edition of Tea Time Magazine.

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  1. This is an amazing read. The history of "low tea" is pretty interesting; with only two meals a day, I too would be clamoring for an afternoon snack. Even more interesting is the new fashion that was brought about for tea times in the "teagie", thank you for the information, I feel this may come in handy if I ever achieve my Jeopardy dreams. "What is a teagie, Alex"

  2. What a wonderful post- I'm planning a titanic tea-and found this- a year late but just fascinating!