“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”
“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter; “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”
-Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol
by Stephanie Hanson
We all know about Alice’s mad tea party adventures, but when it comes to understanding other tea occasions, we can feel as lost as Alice down the Rabbit Hole. Hotels and fancy tea rooms offer afternoon tea or high tea, and then we stumble across mentions of low tea. Things can be even more confusing when we discover that high tea is the tea of the working class and low tea is the more elegant occasion we think of when we think of afternoon tea at the Ritz. So to lessen the confusion, here is a brief explanation of the occasion simply referred to as “tea.”
From the time that tea arrived in England until the earliest years of the eighteenth century, tea was a male beverage, consumed in coffeehouses along with its companions coffee and chocolate (chocolate being a beverage, not a candy). Then in 1717, Thomas Twinings started the first English tea shop, the Golden Lyon. The first tea shop open to women attracted many ladies desiring to come in and taste the blends. Women began hosting tea parties and tearooms and tea gardens became open to both sexes and people from all walks of life.
The lovely tradition of afternoon tea came a bit later. The British enjoyed tea at all times of the day and into the evening. Until Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford came along. The upper class of the time enjoyed a light lunch and then many hours until a late evening meal. Anna described her hunger pangs as a “sinking feeling” in the middle of the afternoon, and to satisfy them, called her maid to bring her tea and light refreshments to her room. This lovely arrangement pleased her so much that she soon started asking her friends to join her for afternoon tea. The tradition spread, and became known as “low tea” for the low tables used at these occasions, lower than a formal dining table.
High tea, or meat tea, was a working class occasion in the evening, consisting of tea and a mix of savory and sweet dishes, consumed by workers as they returned from long, hard days. This was served at higher tables. The so-called high tea offered by many tea-rooms had little resemblance to these hearty meals.
Whatever the name, an afternoon pause for tea and refreshment is a lovely break to any day. As the Mad Hatter tells us “It’s always tea-time.”
Check out Stephanie’s blog, The Tea Scoop, for more great writing!