The term “High Tea” and “Afternoon Tea” are often used interchangeably when discussing the ritual or ceremony of tea drinking. Many tea rooms offer ritual tea drinking by reservation only. Including Mrs. Teapots, the subject of yesterday’s post describing my belated birthday outing with friends.
I decided to conduct a little research to determine where this custom originated and to clarify once and for all the difference between the terms “High Tea” and “Afternoon Tea” if there were any. It was my understanding that the notion of high tea derived from Great Britain, thus I sought to find a legitimate source of information. In my search, I happened upon the UK Tea Council, from whence I pulled my research information. Additionally, I saw this website quoted by other sites when defining High Tea.
I learned that while tea was part of the staple diet of the poor, among the rich, tea drinking was evolving into an elaborate social occasion. Afternoon teas probably had their roots in the ladies tea-parties of the seventeenth centuries, but evolved during the eighteenth century into something of a national institution. Tradition has it that afternoon tea was ‘invented’ by Anna Maria, the wife of the seventh Duke of Bedford, who in 1841 started drinking tea and having a bite to eat in the mid-afternoon, to tide her over during the long gap between lunch (eaten at about 1 o’clock) and dinner (eaten at around 7 o’clock). This swiftly developed into a social occasion, and soon the Duchess was inviting guests to join her for afternoon tea at 5 o’clock. It did not become instantly popular elsewhere though, partly because in fashionable circles dinner was eaten earlier, leaving less of a gap to be filled by afternoon tea. But by the 1860s the fashion for afternoon tea had become widespread. Such teas were elegant affairs, with tea drunk from the best china and small amounts of food presented perfectly on little china plates. On offer might be bread and butter, scones and cakes, and sandwiches with the crusts cut off.
Some poorer households also adopted the practice of afternoon tea, and in some areas women pooled their resources and equipment in order to make such occasions affordable. But more common among the working classes was ‘high tea’. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when most people worked in agriculture, the working classes tended to have the main meal of their day at midday, with a much lighter supper late in the evening. But after the industrial revolution, more and more people were employed for long shifts in factories or mines, and hot midday meals were thus less convenient. They were also not appropriate for the increasing numbers of children who were at school during the day. The custom developed of having a high tea in the late afternoon, at the end of the working day, consisting of strong tea, and hearty, hot food. Unlike afternoon tea, high tea was the main meal of the day, rather than a stop-gap between lunch and dinner.
I truly appreciate the UK Tea Council writers for explaining the difference in these two customs. In the future, I intend to be more conscientious when discussing tea customs. If the meal served with the tea is on the lighter side, I shall refer to it as Afternoon Tea. Whereas if the meal is hearty in nature, I shall refer to the event as High Tea.
Please share your tea-drinking experiences. Until then… Happy Tea Drinking!
Reference: United Kingdom Tea Council, A Social History of the Nation’s Favourite Drink, retrieved electronically on April 26, 2008 from http://www.tea.co.uk/index.php?pgId=98