Americans—used to having tea or coffee whenever we want—might be a bit flummoxed when visiting countries that have more codified ideas about when and where it’s proper to have tea or coffee, or if additives are customary. Even here in the States, an Ethiopian restaurant once asked my husband to please try their coffee black before they would bring him any cream.
And all those distinctions between English afternoon tea and low tea and high tea? What’s with that? Especially when “having tea” in the U.S. generally means “I’ll have a cup of tea please,” regardless what the clock says.
But the “afternoon tea” that developed in Britain in the 1800s became part of that country’s culture, and even now, here in the U.S., people enjoy re-creations of what we consider English tea. But is it “afternoon tea” or “high tea” or “full tea”?
It turns out that the whole “tea” thing involves interpretations and sliding definitions.
The Standard Story
For example, Beatrice Hohenegger says that afternoon tea is now known as high tea but was originally known as low tea.
Hohenegger cites the story of Lady Anna the Duchess of Bedord as “inventing” afternoon tea, which included tea and light snacks, in the 1840s. This was called low tea either “because it was served in the drawing rooms at the lower, and smaller, tea tables . . . or because it was served during the low part of the afternoon” (Hohenegger 2006:189–190).
Either way, it was an upper-class thing, designed to tide people over until their second meal of the day, which, due to improved artificial lighting, was being served later and later in the evening.
Meanwhile, Hohenegger explains, the hard-working lower classes had their heaviest meal after work, in the evenings. Called meat tea or high tea, it included tea and a full-on meal and was served on standard-height tables.
And the Co-opting of “High Tea”
The Afternoon Tea Company offers an example of how high tea may have evolved in meaning. With high tea being a hardy meal served on standard tables, and afternoon or low tea an upper-class snack served on low tea tables,
the upper classes developed their own variation and also called it ‘high tea’. It was a meal that could be eaten when their servants were away or not available, as it was so easy to prepare. The upper class ‘high tea’ involved the amalgamation of Afternoon Tea and high tea, with the addition of pigeon, veal, salmon and fruit.
Rupert Faulkner (2003:106) says nothing about who prepared this heartier meal—and really, did the upper classes ever actually go down to the kitchen of their manor and forage for food on their own?— but simply that:
the convenience of high tea was such that it was adopted by the upper classes.
Faulkner notes that both afternoon (light snacks) and high tea (sweets and savories) continue as a British tradition.
An Alternate History
Erika Rappaport (2017:83) offers a different origin story, noting that “private tea parties were typically held in the evening after dinner” and that an afternoon tea had been around for at least a decade before Lady Anna supposedly came up with the idea.
So yes, Lady Anna may indeed have moved her tea to the afternoon, but there was a lot going on in Britain at this time and she may well have been following other trends.
For a little perspective, in the early 1800s, the British empire was on the cusp of changing tea preferences with their own development of tea production in the then-British colony of India. Early endorsements, such as by Queen Victoria in 1838, alongside maligning of China and its tea were calculated to push the public to drink British-grown rather than Chinese-grown tea, regardless of quality.
At the same time, the temperance movement was sweeping in, and here’s where afternoon tea figures.
Economists, evangelical Christians, industrialists, and merchants all aligned in promoting the virtues of drinking tea as they combated urbanization and radical change that had accompanied industrialization and the American and French revolutions. Tea was promoted as “a Christian and liberal commodity that could bring an end to the many crises that plagued this era” (Rappaport 2017:59) while being a better choice than alcohol.
Temperance tea parties in 1832 were held in the middle of typically alcohol-heavy race days, thus substituting in tea and snacks, targeted to both men and women. These parties, however, may themselves have been based on tea parties thrown by socialists and other radicals in the 1820s, Rappaport (2017:68) points out, with their “temperance tea parties demonstrat[ing] their vision of an equitable and abundant world.”
In the end, tea parties were viewed as decidedly moral, among all classes, and had certain advantages:
–the mass consumption of tea solved the central conundrum of an industrializing and expanding imperial economy—that is, how to make modern efficient laborers and consumers. (2017:77)
–socialists, liberals, evangelicals, and organized temperance advocates began to serve sweets with tea and proposed that this meal carried religious, political, class, gender, and racial connotations. This new consumer culture bestowed tea drinking with moral and pleasurable meanings about the self and the sacred, and it demonstrated how drinking tea rather than alcohol would bring domestic happiness, class and gender harmony political citizenship, and a heavenly home. (2017:83) [my emphasis]
(Wow, a lot accomplished by leaves steeped in hot water!) It makes sense that Lady Anna seized on the practice of having tea with sweets in the afternoon.
Still, by the mid- to late-1800s, afternoon tea had turned into an upper-class affair dominated by women, ranging from intimate (friends and family, 5–15 people, mainly for conversation) to extravagant (100 people, professional musical performances, dancing, organized games). Sweets were a given, and savory dishes were often included. Tea accessories, servants, large houses, and sizable budgets were required for these lavish events, and the earlier point of having tea in the afternoon was quite lost.
Before the century concluded, “afternoon tea became big business, and . . . there were approximately seven thousand tea shops in London alone” (Rappaport 2017:169). And it was almost exclusively tea from India that was being served.
The Spruce Eats explains that, today, afternoon tea comprises tea and light snacks (scones are a 20th-century addition), and they list variants of afternoon tea:
- cream tea (tea, scones, cream)
- strawberry tea (cream tea, with strawberries)
- light tea (cream tea, with additional sweets)
- full tea (light tea, with savories; usually served on a 3-tiered platter)
So today a full tea is similar to both the original high tea and the co-opted high tea. But here it’s listed as a variant of afternoon tea. My response:
“What’s in a name?
That which we call a rose
By Any Other Name
would smell as sweet.”
Oh, and those 1800s’ teas?
They brought the advent of the tea cozy, coming in my next post!
–Afternoon Tea Company, “What is high tea?,” afternoontea.co.uk, 2020.
–Faulkner, Rupert, ed., Tea: East and West, London: V&A Publications, 2003.
–Goodwin, Lindsey, “How is high tea different from afternoon tea?,” The Spruce Eats, 8/15/19.
–Hohenegger, Beatrice, Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006.
–Rappaport, Erika, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.