In an era when the life expectancy was short, and the child mortality rate was high, the passing of time was keenly felt. Even the ordinary days were cause for celebration, and the little rituals of everyday life became a festivity in their own rite. Teatime was one such ritual…greatly anticipated and acknowledged religiously.
While tea and rituals surrounding tea drinking date back to ancient China and appear in 17th century England under the reign of King Charles II, the concept of “afternoon tea” did not take root in England until the 19th century. According to Victorian lore, Anna, Duchess of Bedford—a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria—invented teatime in the summer of 1840 as a means of staving off hunger in the long interim between breakfast and dinner. In those days, lunch fare was insubstantial, and dinner was served late in the evening. And so when the duchess found that around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, she was overcome by a “sinking feeling” and required refreshment, she began reviving herself with a spot of tea and some breadstuffs from the kitchen. Before long, she started inviting friends to her afternoon teatime. The party would converse over a spread of sandwiches, savoury pastries, cakes, and scones served with clotted cream, then take a stroll through the gardens. This afternoon tradition became known as “low tea” because it was usually enjoyed in a sitting room and therefore was served upon low-sitting coffee tables.
While teatime originated as an upper-class luxury, it was soon popularized among the working class, and by the latter part of the 19th century had become a mainstay of daily Victorian culture. Contrary to modern-day conceptions of the term, “High Tea” actually referred to the teatime of the working class, which occurred at the end of a day’s work and was more of a meal, served at high dining tables. No dainty pastries and finger sandwiches were to be found here… instead, fare such as meats, cheeses, bread, and pickled vegetables washed down with tea.
By the 1880s, teatime had become a fashionable affair. High society would dress for the occasion in gloves, hats, and formal wear and receive company in the drawing-room between 4 and 5 o’clock for a teatime social hour. Otherwise, they would attend a luxury hotel’s afternoon tea service.
Teatime is still alive and well in British culture and remains a widespread observance all over the world. I tend to agree with Henry James on this one: “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
Wishing you many afternoon comforts with hot tea in hand!