Afternoon Tea in Britain

Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford is often credited with the invention of the tradition of afternoon tea in the early 1840's. Traditionally dinner was not served until 8:30 or 9:00 in the evening and the Duchess often became hungry, especially in the summer when dinner was served even later. She ordered a small meal of bread, butter, and other niceties, such as cakes, tarts, and biscuits, to be brought secretly to her boudoir. When she was exposed she was not ridiculed, as she had feared, but her habit caught on and the concept of a small meal, of niceties and perhaps tea, became popular and eventually known as "afternoon tea" (Ukers 1935). Obviously the origins of the well known British tradition of afternoon tea cannot be credited to only one woman, but evolved over a period of time, as many cultural customs do.

Women were first introduced to tea on a wide scale when Lyon's tea house opened and not only served women tea, but even hired stylish young women to serve it. This provided a place for women, accompanied by a male escort, to go and visit with one another in an acceptable atmosphere (Ukers 1935: 414). Women were also served tea in the London tea gardens of the early 1730's. Tea gardens were outdoor gardens with flowered walks and music for dancing. They opened in April or May and remained open throughout the summer until August or September. Tea was not the only beverage served, but was one of the most commonly drunk (Ukers 1935: 389). Unlike Lyon's tea house, tea gardens were not public places. One had to pay to get in, and the working class was not admitted.

In 1819 the Tea Dance became popular, and continued through World War II. Friends and acquaintances gathered between 5:00 and 6:30 pm, and table and chairs would be set up around a dance floor. Tea and snacks were served at the tables while others danced (Smith 1966). It was perhaps the Tea Dance, and not the Duchess of Bedford's afternoon snacks, that were the direct precursor to the tradition of afternoon tea, although the Duchess may have been one of the first to hold afternoon teas.

By the mid 1800's the most of the coffee houses had evolved into exclusive clubs, each geared towards a certain segment of the population. Women were allowed in tea shops and tea gardens, but only with a male companion. However, while the men were out in the clubs for the mid-day meal, or in the afternoons and early evenings, the women could not frequent any of the public establishments to visit with other women. As a result women invited other women to their homes.

Increasing industrialization and urbanization created changes in British culture. In the pre-industrial home, from 1700, when tea started to become more widely available, to 1815, three quarters of the population lived in a rural setting, and were farmers. Over the course of this period increasing numbers of people moved to urban areas to work and live. A middle class, or bourgeoisie, grew out of the new economic opportunities of industrialization. The bourgeoisie spent large amount of money on consumer goods such as tea. An increase in real wages for the working class enabled them to emulate the bourgeoisie as far as was economically feasible (Williams 1987: 162-164).

A stronger ideal of the family and the home was created by a revival of moral reform, paternal authority, and sexual repression. The bourgeois woman's identity became connected with the home and she was given the responsibility of creating a genteel atmosphere in which the man could feel in control. The issue of control was important in that the man's position in the public sphere was often changing and unstable as increasing industrialization changed the roles of production. Women were educated to create this home environment, and to not work outside the home. In spite of this ideal, however, many working class women had to work to support their families. Most worked in domestic service or the textile industry. The working woman was perceived as "contaminated and sickening," in opposition to the middle class woman who was pure, but sick, and the upper class woman who was weak and delicate (Williams 1987: 175). There is an obvious correlation to the amount of contact each class of woman had with the outside world, and how pure and ladylike they were considered to be. A lady was too delicate to go out into the world alone and, therefore, had to entertain and be entertained in the private sphere, or be escorted by a protective man.

The woman controlled the social life of the household. She arranged dinners, at homes, teas, and other social situations. Conversation parties imitating the French salon were also popular starting in around the 1750's (Stenton 1957: 270). All of these activities were centered on improving one's social standing in the community. The relationships of children were carefully controlled, especially in ensuring proper marriages.

When afternoon tea, and other new social activities of the middle and upper classes, developed is not clear, although in 1842, a well known actress named Fanny Kemble first heard of afternoon tea, and did not believe the custom had been practiced prior to that date (Ukers 1935: 405). By the middle of the nineteenth century, and Fanny Kemble's first afternoon tea, the complex set of rules and etiquette surrounding the social customs of women visiting each other for tea.

The at home tea was a common practice. After deciding on a day of the week to hold at home hours, and send announcements to friends, relatives, and acquaintances. On that particular day of the week one would remain at home all day and receive visitors. Some entertainment might be provided for the guests, but usually conversation, after the model of the French salon, was the primary entertainment. Tea and cakes, sandwiches, or other niceties were be served. If sent an at home notice it was expected that unless regrets were sent that all who received a notice would attend. There was at least one person holding an at home day on any given day, and social ties were established as women saw each other almost every day at different houses (Smith 1966: 12).

A system of codes was followed during this formal social interaction. There were three types of formal social visits. The first type was to wish congratulations or condolences on the hostess when appropriate. A card was left with the message, and the visitor may or may not have been received. The ceremonial visit was brief, and when another visitor was announced the ceremonial guest, usually an acquaintance whose visit would increase the social standing of one of the parties involved, would excuse themselves and retreat. The third type of visit was that of friendship. A friend would only visit during the appointed at home hours, but the rules of behavior were less strict. For example, the friend was not expected to leave if another guest arrived, as one of the functions of the tea was to socialize with a group of friends. (Smith 1966: 13-14).

When tea was served the hostess sat at one end of the table and supervised its pouring for her guests. The eldest daughter of the household, or the closest friend of the hostess, served coffee or chocolate if it was desired (Smith 1966: 76). It is interesting to note that the division of serving privileges is indicative of the varying importance of these three beverages at this time. Tea was a valuable commodity, and stored in locked tea caddies for which only the woman of the household held the key. In allowing the eldest daughter, or friend, to serve the other beverages, and reserving the privilege of serving of tea to only herself, she sets levels of social significance. This is an interesting parallel to the lord of the house serving the tea in China. In both cases it is the host with the most power who serves the tea, in spite of the gender differences. Men in nineteenth century Britain were higher on the public scale of social hierarchies, but the woman was in charge of the household, and creating the genteel atmosphere connected with formal social visits. As a result she was more powerful within the house than the man. Even when the British "lord" of the house was present it was the woman's responsibility to serve tea.

The hostess also adds the sugar and milk or lemon to the tea for the guest. These substances were common and inexpensive enough to serve often and to many guests. However, the cultural legacy from when both tea and sugar were rare and expensive luxury goods, created a situation in which the hostess desired, or was expected, to be in control of the amount consumed. When sugar and tea were first introduced only the aristocracy were able to possess them. They displayed their power and wealth by consuming these rare goods (Mintz 1985). Tea and sugar were more common by the 1800's, but as consumable luxuries they still suggested power and wealth. The upper classes wealthy enough to hire servants had them serve the tea and guests were allowed to add their own sugar, milk or lemon to the tea. By releasing control over tea and sugar the upper classes demonstrated their wealth and ability to buy as much of these commodities as desired. This asserted their social standing through the careless consumption of luxury goods.

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