“Afternoon tea should be provided, fresh supplies, with thin bread-and-butter, fancy pastries, cakes, etc., being brought in as other guests arrive.”
― Isabella Beeton, Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management
The practice of taking tea in the afternoon was established, but it was a while before hotels such as Claridges and the Ritz started to offer afternoon teas.
The Langham is credited with being the first hotel in London to offer afternoon tea, opening its doors in 1865. Other hotels did not follow suit until the 1920s.
Whilst gentlemen retreated to clubs, tea rooms offered a place where ladies could meet to take tea and gossip. They were also one of the few places young single women could be seen un-chaperoned. In later years, music was added and so began the age of tea dances, which remained popular up until World War II.
These days, the full afternoon tea experience is a treat reserved for special occasions. Luxury hotels offer a wide range of rare teas and sumptuous cakes and desserts, though sadly no dancing! The cakes have become more elaborate and innovative and, more recently, themed teas have emerged, for example Mad Hatter Tea Parties and Gentlemen’s Teas.