Few things are more British than afternoon tea. Despite the close association, the beverage was enjoyed for more than twenty years in France before it migrated across the English Channel.
Until the nineteenth century, British citizens ate two main meals — breakfast and dinner. Dinner wasn’t served until late evening, so most citizens went many hours between meals.
Around 1840, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Russell, began complaining of faintness in the mid-afternoon. At first, the noblewoman would privately consume a pot of tea and a light snack in her personal quarters. Later that summer, she began inviting friends to dine with her in her rooms at Woburn Abbey.
When the summer ended, Russell continued this meal in London during the social season. Here, other hostesses picked up the practice. As it became popular, teatime moved from private quarters to the drawing room. After a while, most of London’s social scene would be drinking tea and eating a light snack in the afternoon.
Until tea became popular, beer was the daytime drink of choice for the lower class. Since beer is produced with boiled water and antiseptic hops, it was a safer drink than the unsanitary water. At the time, drinking alcohol was a social ritual, a vital source of calories, an escape for the working classes.
As the Industrial Revolution took hold, workers were expected to stay sober during their long workdays at the factory. During the same time, the temperance movement was gaining steam, and more people were turning to “temperance drinks” like coffee, tea, and chocolate.
Though many tea shops call the light, casual afternoon snack “high tea,” they’re misusing the term. High tea actually refers to the slightly heavier meal enjoyed around 5 or 6 at night, usually by the working class during the Industrial Revolution. This meal was often taken during the factories’ longest break of the day – the tea break.
For many workers, high tea was a vital source of caffeine and calories. Since it helped workers to get through long work days, some historians credit the tea break for the spike in productivity that happened during this era. The name is thought to be derived from the high, formal dinner tables it was served on.