Tea and the Working Class

The working class drank tea in a different cultural context than the bourgeoisie. Thousands worked in the factories that were owned, or managed, by the husbands of the women holding at home teas. They did not have enough money to allow women to stay at home all day.

Tea, for the working class was a substance that constituted a break from work, just as many office workers in the United States have cigarette or coffee breaks. It was a brief time of rest to socialize with other workers, and collect the energy to finish the day. Not only was it a break from work, but the caffeine and sugar in the hot tea gave the impression that one had eaten something. Tea made any food seem like a hot meal, and was drunk in large quantities amongst the working class as beer or ale had been drunk previously. Why the switch from the traditional alcoholic beverages to tea, a beverage that had been a foreign luxury for the past two centuries?

Tea had been consumed by the working classes since the eighteenth century, as is indicated by a tract written in 1765 against the usage of tea, as it created much expense for the kingdom in that it was, "...the common luxury of every chambermaid, sempstress and tradesman's wife, both in town and country..." (Swift 1765: 199). However, tea did not become widely available and affordable to the working classes until the middle to late nineteenth century. By the 1830's tea was a necessary "luxury" for many of the working class (Harrison 1971: 38). The 1870's and 1880's marked the introduction of cheap black tea from Sri Lanka on the market in Britain. This tied with the increase in trade due to the tea clipper ships that began in the 1830's and 1840's, meant that the price of tea was relatively low. A new emphasis on morality included a popular temperance movement in the middle of the nineteenth century, and the working classes needed to find a cheap substitute for alcohol. Inexpensive tea arrived at exactly the right moment in history to take this place.

The temperance movement had its beginnings in 1791 when a number of Quakers joined forces with others against slavery and abstained from consumption of sugar and rum, as both of these substances were produced by slave labor. The movement expanded to include the abstinence from all alcoholic beverages. Tea was chosen as one of the alternative beverages to alcohol possibly in connection with Catherine of Braganza's previous choice of tea as a substitute for alcohol.

Previous to the eighteenth century alcohol was one of the few non-contaminated beverages available to the working class. Water sources were often impure and difficult to obtain, and milk was not properly treated so as to prevent the growth of bacteria. Water supplies were being cleaned in the early 1800's and pipelines made clean water more available to a larger number of people than ever before. By the 1840's soda water and ginger beer became available, although costlier than tea. The temperance movement had become a powerful movement among the working class in the 1840's when per capita tea consumption rise sharply (Harrison 1971: 38-100).

The diet of the working class was extremely bad in the nineteenth century. The higher wages of the eighteenth century did not continue into the next century, and malnutrition among the working class was a large problem, as the primary sources of nutrition were bread, potatoes and strong tea. By 1871 the average British person consumed about four pounds of tea in a year (Drummond and Wilbraham 1939: 390).

Tea drinking among the working classes, was very different from the complex set of etiquettes surrounding tea in the bourgeoisie. There was a measure of emulation of the bourgeoisie on the part of the working classes both in the switch from alcohol to tea, and in the drinking of tea over other available beverages. However, the way in which tea was drunk, and the meanings surrounding the substance were completely different for the working class.

The high tea evolved to take the place of dinner when a proper hot meal could not be afforded. High tea was a family meal, and took place anytime between 5:00 and 7:00 pm. It was much larger than the few sandwiches and pastries eaten for an afternoon tea in the bourgeoisie. One or two small hot dishes were served along with cold chicken, game, or ham, salad, and cakes or tarts. Tea became part of a larger meal and faded into the background, often relegated to from the table to the sideboard. Tea was not a luxury commodity to members of the working class, but a daily necessity.

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