Afternoon tea is a quaint little social ritual involving pretty china, little pastries, and determinedly chipper conversation with an older female relative. Is that last just me? Possibly not, considering the history. Like any dated social ritual, tugging on the loose thread that is afternoon tea leads you to a thick fabric of historical events. In this case, the events are the Industrial Revolution and the social shifts that English society made to accommodate it.

High Tea

Before the Industrial Revolution Britain was largely populated by farmers. They had a different pattern of meals than we do today; they grabbed a bite on the way out the door to the fields, had a large dinner at midday, and a smaller meal in the evening. When they became factory workers this had to change.

Even now,with our rosters of worker’s rights, it can be tricky to get your employer to give you enough time for lunch; eighteenth and nineteenth century factory workers were often required to eat while still working. The main meal was now taken immediately after work. Tea was a mainstay of the new factory worker’s diet, replacing beer; tea was newly plentiful, and caffeine was better for helping factory workers keep all their fingers than alcohol. The new after-work meal was named for the new part of their diet: high tea.

Afternoon Tea

The working class was not the only one transformed by the Industrial Revolution. The middle class exploded in size, and with industrial production many things that were a mark of wealth came within the reach of less wealthy people. One of these was idle family members. Middle class women did not work, or even go out unescorted. The options for filling their spare time being rather limited, the ladies invented new ones. Since there was nothing scandalous about them visiting each other they took to spending their long afternoons at each other’s houses at a rotating series of dances and conversation parties, at which refined refreshments were served.

Tea, fine china, and white sugar were now affordable to a broad segment of the population, but they retained a sense of sophistication from when they could only be bought by the rich. The tea, elegant settings, and pastries of afternoon tea were props for the new middle class to help solidify their place in the upper echelons of society. The origin story of afternoon tea makes it clear; the story goes that the seventh duchess of Bradford took to having it by herself because she became hungry before the late dinners favored by the aristocracy After all, they did nothing to work up an appetite earlier! When the duchess was discovered by her friends she was afraid they would tease her, but they loved the idea, and it became a social event. What better story for a fashionable new habit of the middle class than that it had been invented by nobility?

Modern Remnants

As society adjusted to the changes made by the Industrial Revolution meals settled into their modern form, and the teas fell out of fashion. High tea now exists in a few corners of Britain, an Australian habit of referring to dinner that way, and confused Americans who have merged high and afternoon teas in their minds. Afternoon tea is less popular too now that everyone is expected to work, but most of us do get weekends and retirement off, so the tradition continues in a reduced fashion, and we have somewhere to take our grandmothers when we’d like to take them out for some conversation.

Elizabeth, Teahouse Kuan Yin Staff