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  • Writer's picturePaullett Golden

Teatime & Tea Etiquette

Publication Date: Sept 25, 2021

How do you take your tea? Seriously, very seriously.

Afternoon Tea by Jean Carolus, 1879
Afternoon Tea by Jean Carolus, 1879

A pivotal moment in the courtship between Leila and Jules in A Touch of Romance is a scene where they take tea together--alone. We'll also see the members of the Ladies' Literary Society meeting from time to time over tea to share their thoughts on Jules, writing, and more. For fun, let's explore teatime and etiquette. I'll link to a few fun sources that offer more depth into tea history.

While "afternoon tea" did not come about until the mid-19th century (thanks to the Duchess of Bedford), it was during the 17th century that tea became part of England's culture, and along with it the development of the British tea ceremony. Ale was the national drink until tea hit the scene (eew). While tea was already popular in other European countries, and if not tea, then coffee, it was late in arriving to England but wasted no time in becoming more than a popular beverage in England--it became a cultural icon.

Tea already held a presence in England in the early 17th century and was even sold by coffeehouses, but it was not particularly popular and certainly not a social or fashionable beverage. It was considered medicinal and used only to treat illnesses (oh, you know, like virility). In the latter-half of the 17th century, 1662 to be precise, King Charles II's wife (Catherine of Braganza) brought her tea and tea rituals with her from Portugal where tea was the beverage of choice. There are plenty of tales about the new queen's introduction to England, such as her requesting tea only to be served beer, or her loving tea so much she brought it over in a large casket, but what we know for certain is she takes the credit for being the tea-drinking queen. Although it took until 1678 for the British East India Company to import tea on a commercial scale, the popularity spread soon after the queen's arrival, as did her customs.

A Lady & Two Gents at Tea by Philip Reinagle
A Lady & Two Gents at Tea by Philip Reinagle

It did not take long before all of fashionable society followed Catherine of Braganza's lead. Sharing one's morning toilette with friends over tea turned from being a queen's tradition to an aristocratic ritual to a custom shared even in the poorest of households. Tea for breakfast, being with friends or alone, became the norm. Morning tea was a woman's tradition in the 17th century. It was served not in handled teacups but in tea-bowls, which were porcelain bowls that held only a few tablespoons' worth of tea. It was not unheard of for people to drink tea from the saucer itself, but we would never see that done with guests (let's not mention the Victorians who found "a dish of tea" acceptable even in polite company). It was not until the 1740s that British-made porcelain was used over the China imports, with dainty bowls exchanged for larger cups with handles. The gentlemen had their coffeehouses while the ladies enjoyed their morning tea together.

It was the tea gardens in the 18th century that prompted gentlemen to enjoy tea, as well. Granted, coffeehouses did sell both a hot cup of tea and tea leaves for gentlemen to bring home to their wives, but the coffeehouses were only for gentlemen and the tea primarily for medicinal purposes. There is some contention as to how much credit coffeehouses should receive for bringing tea not just to the gentlemen but to all of England. Since coffeehouses had been selling tea since the early 17th century, there is certainly some credit due, but since it was sold medicinally, not as a beverage to be enjoyed or shared with friends, how far should that credit go? I'll leave that for you to decide. The coffeehouses, credit or no, had to pay the price for the increased popularity of tea as a fashionable drink, for the king required coffeehouse merchants to apply for a license to sell it, and let's not forget about the high tax (119%!) to allow the king to profit from the popularity (and combat the loss of tax revenue from liquor since people began to prefer tea over alcohol).

A Perspective View of the Building for the Fireworks in the Green Park, Taken from the Reservoir, 1749. Yale Center for British Art, Yale Art Gallery Collection.
A Perspective View of the Building for the Fireworks in the Green Park, Taken from the Reservoir, 1749. Yale Center for British Art, Yale Art Gallery Collection.

Regardless of how much credit we give coffeehouses for popularizing tea, tea gardens should take the credit for turning tea from a morning beverage for aristocrats to a fashionable drink for all. It was at the tea garden (not the exclusively male coffeehouses) where ladies and gentlemen of all classes could enjoy tea together--a great courtship opportunity! We might all be familiar with pleasure gardens, such as Vauxhall or Ranelagh Gardens, but what about tea gardens? These were enjoyed primarily by the working class and were numerous. Some inns and taverns even set up tea gardens to attract more customers, offering entertainments like bowling greens, ponds, play tables, gambling and racing, etc. Laborers were said to have exchanged their morning meal for a cup of tea. Cuper's Gardens was an interesting example of a tea garden because it started out as a pleasure garden only to close then later reopen as a tea garden. Read more about it in this post from All Things Georgian.

Tea Party at Lord Harrington's House by Charles Philips
Tea Party at Lord Harrington's House by Charles Philips

Let's not confuse tea gardens with tearooms (tearooms weren't seen until after 1860). Let's also not confuse them with the pleasure gardens. Pleasure gardens did not feature tea and were the popular public gardens with dancing and music. Tea gardens were smaller outdoor spaces with tea as the main feature. Tea gardens offered picturesque flowered walks, sometimes a pond, shaded arbors, bowling greens, and games. Along with the outdoor attraction, it boasted hot bread and butter, fresh milk, coffee, tea, cheeses, syllabubs, and cakes. The more picturesque the walking area, the more popular the tea garden. There was no cost for admission as long as you purchased a beverage or treat. Some tea gardens went so far as to offer hot air balloon rides, musical concerts, and dancing (much like some pleasure gardens offered). So popular became the tea gardens that to compete, many of the pleasure gardens had to change their approach and incorporate tea gardens or reinvent themselves into tea gardens (as did Cuper's Gardens). The time of day determined not only what entertainments were offered with the tea, but also what sort of guests might be present. The older citizens, as well as those with disabilities, tended to enjoy tea gardens in the morning, while the more youthful crowd enjoyed them in the afternoon. The tea gardens were most popular with the working class, not the gentry or aristocracy--not to say the upper class didn't visit tea gardens, but we'd be hard pressed to spot one of its members there.

Morning Tea by Richard Houston, 1750. Courtesy of British Museum
Morning Tea by Richard Houston, 1750. Courtesy of British Museum

Why don't we see more of these in hist roms? As mentioned, tea gardens were more popular with the working class than gentry or aristocracy, but that doesn't mean we can't have our heroes and heroines meeting there, right? Perhaps it's time we see more hot air balloon rides and tea gardens! (As long as the story takes place after 1783, we can have hot air balloons at our tea garden!). This post from Jane Austen's World offers more insight into tea gardens. Although tea was first established as a lady's breakfast drink, the tea gardens bolstered tea's popularity not only with gentlemen but also as an afternoon and after dinner drink. The after-dinner enjoyment of tea became as much a ritual as it had been for the lady's morning toilette. Tea would be brought into the drawing room so the hostess could treat her guests while they enjoyed a musical performance or conversation. During the 17th and 18th century, a servant would bring loose leaf tea, boiling water in the tea urn, teapot, and teacups to the lady of the house who would then steep the leaves herself as part of the tea ceremony. By the early 19th century, this tradition changed, and tea was prepared in the kitchen instead and brought ready to serve.

Since flavored blends didn't enter the scene until the 19th century, we see in the 17th and 18th centuries green and black tea, with green tea popular in the 17th, and then black tea dominating the market during the 18th century, increasing in popularity as we move closer to the 19th century. There were varieties of both black and green (bohea being the most popular black tea, followed shortly by congou, pekoa, and souchong, and with the most popular green tea being gunpowder), but suffice it to say they all tasted too bitter to drink without sweetening, so adding sugar became popular (refined sugar dates to the 1650s). It was not until the early 18th century (about 1720) that adding milk or cream became popular. Black tea remains the most popular choice, but now we have a variety of blends. Earl Grey, one of the most popular choices, originates from the 1820s (and if you've never visited the tearoom at Howick Hall, it's a must to add to your holiday list!). Darjeeling, another popular choice, this one from India, comes to us from the 1840s. Oolong, from China, is one of the oldest teas but didn't come to England until the early 19th century.

Afternoon Tea for Three by Frédéric Soulacroix
Afternoon Tea for Three by Frédéric Soulacroix

We can see the popularity of tea even in Jane Austen's novels, such as taking tea after an assembly dance in Northanger Abbey, calling on neighbors to enjoy tea in the evening as in Sense and Sensibility, and even recuperating from a journey as in Mansfield Park. We see references to after dinner tea in Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park. If you're looking for a great source that breaks down all of the mentions of tea in Jane Austen's novels and letters, as well as digs even deeper into the history and culture, the differences in meals over the 18th century and early 19th century, recipes, and more, then Tea with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson is a must-own.

This post by author Geri Walton goes into the history, the customs, the critics (yes, there were protestors who called tea poison!), and even images of 18th century tea sets. Another great book to have on your shelf is A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson.

Now, let's cover the fun part! Tea times, terminology, and etiquette. This is a fun and brief video that covers the etiquette. This one is my favorite but is a little longer. I recommend watching both!

Tea Times:

  • Cream Tea: the simplest of teatimes with scones, clotted cream, and tea.

  • Afternoon Tea (Low Tea): a light snack between 3-5pm to tide one over until dinner. This is typically tea, sandwiches, biscuits, and sweets. It is "low tea" because guests will sit in the drawing room (or living/family/parlor) with a low side table or coffee table rather than at the dining room table.

  • Elevensies: a break around the 11am hour for coffee or tea, sometimes with biscuits.

  • High Tea: originated as the laborers' evening meal around 8pm with meat and potatoes and a pot of tea. This tradition was adopted into other classes over time, although the meal would differ (such as veal vs meat pie). It is "high tea" because it is taken at the dining room table. Note that although it is high tea, it doesn't always feature tea.

Tea Terminology and idioms:

  • Cuppa: a cup of tea at any time of the day. The shortening of "cup of tea" to "cuppa" can be traced back to the working-class of the early 19th century, although it did not become popular as a colloquialism until the early 20th century.

  • To take tea: there is a world of difference between "to drink tea" and "to take tea." To drink tea means you're literally drinking the tea--this is an action. To take tea encapsulates not only the tea drinking act but the conversation with a friend, the break needed from work, the sharing of a moment together, and so much more. Taking tea also expresses a preference for tea over coffee (or other beverages): "Would you like coffee?" "No, I take tea." To complicate matters, taking tea may not even involve tea, as two friends could take tea together, meaning they enjoy a moment of conversation together.

  • Tea: reference to any meal of any kind even if it doesn't involve tea. "Enjoy your tea," might say the barkeep at the pub as he hands you a plate of fish and chips.

  • Kettle: was once known as a "tea furnace," and is used to boil the water.

  • Put the kettle on: literally means to boil the water in the kettle but the meaning is so much more. Tell a friend you've had a bad day? Your friend will say, "I'll put the kettle on." There's a world of relief in those words. Unless you arrive without warning, your friend will have the kettle at a boil before you've even arrived.

  • Scone: a pastry to top with jam and clotted cream. Scones have been around since the early 16th century (although the recipe has changed quite a bit over time). The pronunciation is nearly as contentious as the "jam or cream first" debate. As a rule of thumb, if you're in the south, it's pronounced with a long o as in "cone" like ice cream cone, and if you're in the north, it's pronounced with a short o as in "con" or "gone." For grins and giggles, enjoy this pronunciation map.

  • Tea towel: an extra thin, decorative towel used to line the tea tray, serve snacks on, cover warm items with, and a multitude of other teatime related services.

  • Tea tray: a handled tray used to carry all the tea goods from the kitchen to wherever it's going--parlor, drawing room, bedroom, etc. Items on it might be teacups, saucer, plates, plates of sweets, pitcher of milk, sugar bowl, teapot, kettle, etc.

  • Tea service: the set of tea things (often matching), such as teacups and saucer, teapot, milk pitcher, sugar bowl, etc.

  • Tea cozy: a knit or fabric cover for the teapot to keep the tea warm.

  • Tea break: any point during the day when you might need a fresh cuppa.

  • Builder's tea: also called "builder's brew," references an extra strong tea. Originates from the cheap tea tradesmen drank during tea breaks, but is now used as a reference to a strong cuppa.

  • Black tea: the most commonly preferred type of tea (not as in "I prefer it black," rather the type of tea. Earl Grey, for instance, is black tea with bergamot).

  • To be mother: "mother" is the person pouring the tea. This originated in the Victorian era and referenced the person who took responsibility for the teapot and served/refilled teacups. You might hear someone ask, "Shall I be mother?" or even "Shall I be mum?" Interestingly, although it began as a reference to the hostess who traditionally poured the tea, this is not a gendered idiom, as the man at the table could very well "be mother" and pour the tea.

  • Steep: allowing the leaves (or tea bag) to sit in the hot water. The longer they steep, the stronger (and more bitter) will be the tea.

Tea etiquette: Knowing proper etiquette is important (especially if you want to be invited again!), and the 18th century was no exception to the etiquette rules. While not a complete list, here are a few rules to know:

  • It is rude to refuse a cup of tea when it is offered.

  • It is rude to ask if someone wants more tea--simply refill the cup.

  • If a guest does not want the cup refilled, s/he should place a spoon across the cup, place the spoon in the cup, or turn the cup over on the saucer.

  • Wait for the hostess to place their napkin first, then follow suit. When unfolding the napkin, place it in your lap with the fold towards you. If you leave your chair, the napkin stays on the chair seat. It is important to remember the napkin is not a handkerchief and is used only to blot not to wipe.

  • To signal the end of tea, the hostess will pick up her napkin. The guests will pick up their napkin from the center and lay it to the left of their plate.

  • Sugar goes into the teacup first.

  • While milk would have been poured into the cup first in the poorer households of the 18th century to prevent the teacups from cracking, this would not have been done in the finer homes, and now it is merely a family tradition as to which goes first, milk or tea--I recommend pouring the milk after the tea so you can judge how much milk to add.

  • Hold the teacup handle with thumb and first two fingers--do not raise your pinky, loop your fingers through the handle, or cradle the side or bottom of the cup like a mug.

  • When drinking from the teacup, always look into the cup, never over it.

  • There is an art to stirring tea. Do not circle it around the perimeter nor clink it against the cup. Instead, swish it forward and backward (away from you then towards you) without touching the edges. Place the spoon in the saucer behind the teacup, no tapping it on the edge of the cup. Don't drink tea with the spoon still in the cup, and don't sip from the spoon.

  • It's rude to blow on the tea to cool it. If it's too hot, be patient. Since it's customary to enjoy the sweets and savories first, by the time you reach for your teacup, the temperature should be just right.

  • Take small sips, no gulping or slurping.

  • The cup should be on the saucer when not drinking it.

  • When seated at a low table, pick up the saucer with the cup. When at a high table, leave the saucer on the table and only pick up the cup. When standing, lift the saucer along with the cup.

  • Use fingers not forks for non-messy foods (like a sandwich), and take small bites. Eat with three fingers, not five.

  • When enjoying a scone, split it horizontally (ideally you'll pull it apart, but if necessary, you can use a knife). Jam and cream should be dolloped onto the plate, and then spread onto each half of the scone (don't use the serving spoon to do this!). Then eat one half at a time, not made into a sandwich. (Now, whether you put the jam first then the cream or the cream first then the jam is a contentious issue that all depends on where in England you're located. Choose wisely.)

  • Always take small bites since tea is a social occasion in which you are supposed to participate in conversation.

  • Never use the tea to wash down the food. Enjoy your sweet or savory by chewing and swallowing it completely before then enjoying your tea.

  • With a tea tray, eat savories first, scones next, sweets last. At a table, eat scones first since they've been served hot and fresh.

Are you ready to take tea with our myriad of heroes and heroines?


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