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A Brief History of Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea was started in the mid-1800s by Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford. .  At that time in history, only two meals were common; a mid-morning breakfast and a somewhat late evening dinner.  The Duchess found herself with a “sinking feeling” in the late afternoon, with the unacceptably prolonged period of time between lunch and dinner. The Dutchess decided to have some friends over for assorted snacks and tea – and the idea of an “afternoon tea” gathering became very popular among the elite, as well as a favorite pastime of “ladies of leisure”.

The Duchess ordered a few delicacies and some tea to be brought to her boudoir.  The assortment was placed on her low bedside table, and this became known as “Low Tea”.  As time went on, the Duchess wished to enjoy these delights with friends in a more social setting – and so the parlor became the venue for “Afternoon Tea”.

“High Tea” – an often misused term for Afternoon Tea/Formal Tea/Royal Tea could not be more different from these specific tea formalities. “High Tea” has nothing to do with “high society”, “upper class”, or “royalty”. It was actually a more hearty “supper style” meal that included meat between the bread (introduced by the Fourth Earl of Sandwich and thus the High Tea Sandwich), and happened to include tea, that was served in the late afternoon to the “working men” coming home VERY hungry from a hard day’s work.  This meal, like “Low Tea”, is so named, due to the height of the table on which it was served – to accommodate the height of the men who typically stood at the table or sat on high stools to feast. This late afternoon meal gradually became more important on the social calendars of Ladies and Gentlemen and was enjoyed prior to social events like attending the theater or playing cards. 

So….the next time you see a sign in a historically elegant and renowned hotel that says “High Tea” in the mid-afternoon, historically, it should offer assorted scones, fresh fruit, varietal teas, AND meat-filled sandwiches.  Otherwise, it is simply “Afternoon Tea” (a lighter affair). etc.  

On a quick note, “Royal Tea” or “Champagne Tea” simply mean a delightful addition of the bubbly to the occasion. 

 

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