The afternoon tea party seems as British as crumpets and the Union Jack. But the custom didn't really start to develop in England until the 19th century.
Tea drinking itself was popular in Britain long before the Regency. Charles II’s Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza, enjoyed a good cup of tea. She even brought a casket of tea leaves with her when she came to England to be married in 1662. She is considered England’s first tea-drinking Queen.
Legend has it that Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, came up with the idea of serving afternoon tea in the early 1800s. It was a bit of a stretch in those days between meals, so Anna asked for tea and a bite to eat in the late afternoon to keep her hunger at bay. Reportedly, she also took advantage of the Earl of Sandwich’s invention – two slices of bread with a filling in-between.
It wasn't long before this afternoon tea break became a good excuse for inviting some friends over for socializing. How early this custom began is unclear, but Jane Austen made a reference to afternoon tea around 1804, in a book she never finished.
During the Regency era visitors were seldom offered anything to eat or drink, but that changed as tea parties became more fashionable. And soon it wasn't enough to enjoy a hot cup of tea with your friends – you had to learn a host of etiquette rules so you could drink the stuff properly.
Here’s a poster that spells out some of those rules:
|Poster offered by Penhaligon's of London
I wonder if the Mad Hatter held his cup correctly at his perpetual tea party? I’ll bet Alice knew what to do.
|John Tenniel's illustration of the Mad Hatter's tea party in
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
(wood engraving by Thomas Dalziel)
Tea parties are still popular today, though maybe not always performed with the same enthusiasm these gentlemen are exhibiting:
|Photo by Matt Baume
But at least the tradition lives on. Maybe someday you'll be inspired to host your own tea party. Invite some friends over, and ditch the tea bags and mugs. Instead, find a tea pot and a set of pretty little cups and saucers. If you have a tea cozy to cover the pot and keep the brew warm, so much the better. Perhaps you can serve cut-up cucumber or watercress sandwiches and small cakes or cookies. Just be sure to keep your pinkie finger down as you hold your cup by its handle!
|Drawing by Kate Greenaway (1879)
Sources for this article include information from the United Kingdom Tea Council Ltd. and An Afternoon to Remember Fine Tea and Gifts
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons