Afternoon Tea - A Brief History - Part 1

There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.
Henry James

In a couple of weeks, Caked will be launching a brand new afternoon tea service, and in anticipation I’ll be looking into the etiquette, trends and history of this most British of traditions.

We think of tea as the national drink, but in fact before the 1700s coffee was the favoured hot beverage of the English. It was in coffee shops, not tea rooms or pubs, that people would gather.

When tea arrived on these shores it was seen as a rare medicinal drink, until trade with India brought down the price and turned drinking tea into a sign of class and respectability. But the idea of afternoon tea as a meal didn’t begin until the 1800s.

Surprisingly, we have the increased prominence of affordable gaslight to thank for this. As it became cheaper to light homes, the time of dinner moved fashionably later. This was at a time when it was normal to only have two main meals in the day – breakfast and dinner.

Afternoon tea itself is attributed to Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford. It is said that because of this later dinnertime, she would get “a sinking feeling” in the afternoon. And so she requested a tray of tea, bread and butter and cakes delivered to her room at 4 o’clock, to see her through to dinner. After some time, Anna started inviting friends to join her for tea in the drawing room of her home at Woburn Abbey.

Eventually this became a widely adopted social event. Every afternoon, upper-class ladies would change into their finery and attend tea, which consisted of dainty sandwiches and small morsels of cake served with Indian or Ceylon varieties served in bone china cups.

Afternoon-Tea-Table-2

I’ll be continuing this history in my next post, when I’ll be looking at how hotels adopted afternoon tea and turned it into the decadent and elaborate ritual we know today.

And look out for more information coming soon on Caked Teas!