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Afternoon Tea – History in America and Britain

Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Russell who is believe to have started afternoon tea
Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Russell (Public Domain)

As an American, my exposure to afternoon tea first came via Alice in Wonderland, when Alice came upon the Mad Hatter and his never ending table of colorful cups, teapots, sugar bowls, creamers and little plates with finger foods. As I got older, my mother would take me to afternoon tea held by her friends, or the entire family to an afternoon tea at a tea shop or hotel when visiting towns like Savannah, Georgia. So what is the history of afternoon tea and why is it that this daily custom for the British never fully made it into American culture?

Afternoon Tea and The Industrial Revolution

So it turns out that afternoon tea became common practice across all classes of the British between 1830-1850. The Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Russell, is widely given credit for bringing afternoon tea to the forefront of the upper classes of Britain. However, it should be noted that during the same period England’s industrial revolution was under way. The change to an industrial economy had the surprising effect of lengthening the time between lunch and dinner as workers where no longer home for dinner at 5 or 6, but much later at 8 in the evening. Both housewives and workers where in need of a mid-afternoon snack and afternoon tea fit that bill.

As this custom progressed, there became both low tea and high tea, which got their names from the height of the tables used. Low tea was really the afternoon tea, where guests where seated in lower arm chairs and side tables that where the same height as the arms on the chairs where used to hold the tea and food. High tea refers to tea served at the kitchen or dinning room table, and is now called dinner. High tea was usually practiced by the middle and lower classes and low tea was still reserved for the upper classes.

The rise of afternoon tea in the upper class is written about in great detail in Jane Austen’s books, which where penned a few decades before the Duchess of Bedford.

History of Afternoon Tea in the United States

Afternoon Tea is still enjoyed around the world.
Modern Afternoon Tea with small sandwiches and food. ( by Flickr user Per Mosseby from Sweden, CC BY-SA-2.0)

The United States was still very much an agrarian economy when England was undergoing its industrial revolution. It wouldn’t be until after the Civil War that afternoon tea became truly popular with the upper class. That is not say that the US didn’t do afternoon tea; there are more than a few cook books, like The American System of Cookery, published in 1847 that lay out instructions for the arrangement of tea. It just wasn’t universally practiced. Women were the ones who took on this custom as they were not allowed in evening dining halls with their husbands. Afternoon tea was gaining popularity in the early 1900’s as seen in the Wall Street Journal, which published a piece on April 18, 1906 called “Wall Street Tea Parties”,where the article outlines J.P. Morgan Jr. taking afternoon tea at 4pm with a few of his fellow bankers. As mentioned in an earlier post on American Tea History, World War I greatly limited access to tea in the United States, turning coffee into the go-to drink for US citizens. However, tea settings and the practice of afternoon tea still remain popular in many upper class circles. As tea became more expensive and harder to get, afternoon tea left the home and came into high end hotels and restaurants as well as tea shops.

There are still cookbooks published to help you serve a proper afternoon tea as well as many local tea shops, restaurants and hotels that will do all the work for you. So if you haven’t sat for afternoon tea, go try it. It is a fun and relaxing way to spend an hour with family and friends.