A Brief History of Afternoon Tea
Legend has it that afternoon tea was started in the mid-1800s by the Duchess of Bedford when the Duchess found herself with a “sinking feeling” in the late afternoon. At that time in history, only two meals were common; a mid-morning breakfast and a somewhat late evening dinner. The Dutchess decided to have some friends over for assorted snacks and tea and the idea of an “afternoon tea” gathering became very popular among the elite and a favorite pastime of ladies of leisure.
Another term commonly associated with “Afternoon Tea” is “Low Tea”. This expression was born of the height of the table from which the Dutchess enjoyed her first “afternoon tea” (a low bedside table).
“High Tea” – which HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH “Afternoon Tea” or “High Society” is the hearty “supper style” meal, including tea, that was served in the very late evening; upon which time the “men folk” would come home VERY hungry from a hard day’s work. This meal, like “low tea”, is so named, due to the height of the table on which it was served.
So….the next time you see a sign in a historically elegant and renowned hotel that says “High Tea” “3:00-4:00pm – Assorted scones, fresh fruit, varietal teas, etc. – they have it wrong. Sure, they can call it whatever they want, but that doesn’t make it historically accurate. I’m fairly certain that most places use the term “High Tea” for one of two reasons:
- Lack of education and research on the proper description and history
- They think “High Tea” sounds “high class” or “high society” and casts an immediate image of elitism, elegance, snobbery or a combination of all.
So…here are a few points to help you remember the difference between High Tea and Afternoon Tea:
- Afternoon Tea is commonly served from 3:00-5:00pm (in the US) and in Britain, pretty much everyone stops to enjoy “afternoon tea” at 4pm.
- Delights include fresh warm scones, fresh fruit, assorted light tea sandwiches (or what we might call “finger sandwiches”) and of course – tea.
- Afternoon Tea in one’s home may be anytime one pleases but is usually in the mid-afternoon for the purpose of exchanging pleasantries
- Afternoon Tea may also be “special” or “custom” in some venues; “Champagne Tea”, “Teddy Bear Tea”, “Strawberry Tea”, “Christmas Tea”
- Afternoon Tea may be presented buffet style, banquet style, intimate hotel lobby lounge seating areas, patio style or any other creative option a venue or person may choose.
- Attire for Afternoon Tea can be from casual chic to formal attire depending on the occasion and venue in which it is offered.
- “True” High Tea is rarely seen in the US but if you find one, it should be served AFTER 5:00pm.
- High Tea consists of very hearty entrees like meats, fish, kidney pie, baked goods, and vegetables (again, more like what we call “supper” or “dinner” depending on where you live).
- High Tea is served at a dinner table rather than “low coffee tables” like you often see for Afternoon Tea service.
- High Tea DOES NOT MEAN “high class” or “high society” and in fact, historically, referred to the dinner for ”working class men” in the late evening.
So…there you have it. I hope you will help me spread the truth about this common misconception and the next time you are invited to “High Tea”, make sure you ask what meat and fish choices are being offered!
Get the facts about Afternoon Tea versus High Tea in this detailed blogpost regarding the history of Afternoon Tea. Visit our website at www.magnoliaetiquette.com to see our Tea Etiquette Program.