The tradition of afternoon tea originated among the British upper classes in the 1840s. At that time gas lighting appeared in Britain and it became fashionable to serve supper later in the evening in upper-class homes. It was usual to have only two meals per day, i.e. breakfast and supper. Therefore, the gap between those meals was quite substantial and one could feel hungry during the afternoon.
Therefore, one day, a very influential and intelligent lady, namely Anna, Duchess of Bedford, had an interesting idea. She asked for a cup of tea and a light snack at around 4 pm, to relieve hunger. Soon the Duchess took to this ritual and started inviting her friends over for a cup of tea in her rooms at Woburn Abbey. Thus the tradition of afternoon tea emerged among the British nobility.
Afternoon tea becomes a ritual
In the 1880s the tradition of taking tea between meals became very popular among the aristocrats in Britain. People would dress up and arrive in carriages for this occasion. The tea etiquette was very important too. Usually, the lady of the house would prepare the tea in a silver or porcelain teapot. Then she would generously serve tea to her guests in fine porcelain cups.
Tea was usually accompanied by finger sandwiches, scones and other miniature cakes, beautifully presented on elegant cake stands. Some hosts would also invite professional musicians to entertain their guests during afternoon tea!
By the end of the 19th century afternoon tea gained an overwhelming popularity. Now everyone could enjoy this ritual because tea salons opened in most big cities and one could even indulge oneself in this treat at luxury hotels, such as The Ritz, or department stores, such as Whiteley’s!
At the beginning of the 20th century afternoon tea became a “trademark” of the British elite. One could find the rules of tea etiquette in most etiquette books of that time. For example, it was unacceptable to mix the sugar energetically, or leave the teaspoon in the cup while drinking the tea..
The popularity of this ritual slightly declined after the war, and there were a number of reasons for that. First of all, the life rhythm had accelerated, and people were dedicating much more time to their work. Therefore, they could not spend two hours drinking tea during the afternoon. Secondly, the new fashion that implied that women should always remain slim was incompatible with the treats that accompanied afternoon tea. Therefore, tempting as it might have been, women started to avoid this ritual.
Afternoon tea today
Nowadays, afternoon tea is very popular with tourists visiting the UK, as well as tradition-conscious British people. Today one can enjoy it in luxury hotels, such as the Ritz, the Dorchester, Brown’s Hotel, the Goring, Hilton, etc. It is also served in large department stores, such as Fortnum & Mason or Harrods, as well as in various tea rooms in Britain.
Most traditions connected with afternoon tea exist to this day. The tradition of preparing tea in very elegant teapots remains to this day. The most popular tea choices for aftenoon tea include Earl Grey, Darjeeling, Keemun, Milk Oolong, Sencha and different types of White tea. Afternoon tea treats are also as interesting as they were in the past. One would usually accompany tea by finger sandwiches, scones and miniature cakes. What is more, it is still traditional to serve the food on fine cake stands. Nowadays it is also quite common to indulge in a glass of champagne or prosecco with your meal. What a treat!
Afternoon tea is, indeed, a very pleasurable experience, but at a price. In order to enjoy this ritual in the luxury hotels and department stores, such as Fortnum & Mason or Harrods, you should envisage paying about £50-60 per person, while it may be slightly cheaper in tea rooms, or in simpler places.
There are also many cook books dedicated to the teatime treats, therefore, it is perfectly possible to throw a tea party at home!