The Humble History of Afternoon Tea


Let’s take a trip back in time. It’s 1881, forty years after the Afternoon Tea came into fashion and the American author, Henry James, is dipping his pen in ink writing, “there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” I like to think of him now, dressed in his morning coat (worn for all formal day occasions) with the newly popular Ascot tie, strolling through a quintessential English garden in full bloom. Where can we presume Mr. James would be going dressed to impress?  Afternoon Tea, of course!

Steeped in history beginning in China thousands of years ago, the tea ceremony has grown to become one of the world’s greatest rituals, evolving dramatically as it traveled from East to West. English traders in search of these fragrant dried leaves developed trade routes, committing themselves to months (sometimes years!) of travel to share delicious tea with loved ones back in England.  The tea industry grew into a world wide enterprise, particularly with Oolong, the mother of all leaves, from which all other varieties of tea would be developed.

In the 1840’s, Queen Victoria popularized the tradition of tea with the help of her Lady, Anna Bedford. Ann  experienced rumbling in her stomach between the hours of breakfast and dinner. She began requesting “tea with an assortment of breads and cakes” be brought to her private parlor. Word soon got out to friends (including the Queen!) who would join her small afternoon parties for a bit of sugar, caffeine, gossip and voila – the tea party was born.

Back to our old friend, Henry. An American ex-patriot, Mr. James fell in love with England and the English way of life, exclaiming that the mid afternoon tea party was a “pause celebre”, a moment to stop whatever was happening, relax, indulge in gentle sips of brewed energy, timely conversation (a little gossip), laughter and a bite sized treats. After tea, people returned to their day with renewed vigor.

This high society occasion eventually became available to the common man, who would enjoy a variation called high tea, a savory meal in the evenings. Today, tea is widely available without a journey to China. Enjoy it brewed in humble bags at home, steeped in the world’s most luxurious hotels, on planes, trains, out of a thermos, in a mug or Mrs. B’s favorite, a tea cup.

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