“Tea tempers the spirits and harmonizes the mind, dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue, awakens thought and prevents drowsiness, lightens or refreshes the body, and clears the perceptive faculties.” ― Confucius
Legend has it that tea was discovered by the Chinese Emperor, Shan Nong, in 2737 B.C. The Emperor liked boiling his drinking water and one day while he was in his garden a few tea leaves fell by chance into his boiling water which then gave off a rich, alluring aroma. Upon drinking this brew, he discovered it to be refreshing and energizing. He immediately gave the command that tea bushes to be planted in the gardens of his palace. Thus the custom of brewing fresh tea leaves in hot water began and it quickly spread.
Until the fifth century A.D., tea was primarily used as a remedy, due to the medicinal benefits attributed to it. From this time onwards, China's upper class adopted the fashion of presenting packages of tea as highly esteemed gifts and of enjoying drinking tea at social events and in private homes. At around the same time the Chinese tea ceremony began to develop and the tidings of tea began to spread as it reached Japan.
Tea arrived in Europe via Dutch and Portuguese sailors at the beginning of the 17th century. They had trade relations with China and brought the tea to Britain and Holland at the outset, where it was sold at auctions and became very popular among the aristocracy and the wealthy. The beverage's initial high price prevented it from circulating among the western population at large. Tea first became established in Britain because of the influence of a foreign princess, Catherine of Braganza, the queen of Charles II. A lover of tea since her childhood in Portugal, she brought tea-drinking to the English royal court, and set a trend for the beverage among the aristocracy of England in the seventeenth century.
The fashion soon spread beyond these elite circles to the middle classes, and it became a popular drink at the London coffee houses where wealthy men met to do business and discuss the events of the day. But the tea that was being drunk in those seventeenth century coffee houses would probably be considered undrinkable now. The quality of the drink improved after 1689, when the system of taxation was altered so that tea was taxed by the leaf rather than by the liquid.
Some coffee houses also sold tea inloose leaf form so that it could be brewed at home. This meant that it could be enjoyed by women, who did not frequent coffee houses. Since it was relatively expensive, tea-drinking in the home must have been largely confined to wealthier households, where women would gather for tea parties. Such a party would be a genteel social occasion, using delicate china pots and cups, silver tea kettles and elegantly carved tea jars and tea tables. All the equipment would be set up by the servants, and then the tea would be brewed by the hostess (aided by a servant on hand to bring hot water) and served by her to her guests in dainty cups. Both green and black teas were popular, and sugar was frequently added (though like tea, this was an expensive import); in the seventeenth century though, it was still unusual for milk to be added.
Fluctuations in the level of tax meant fluctuations in the price of tea, and during the seventeenth century frequent tea-drinking was beyond the means of the majority of British people. But despite its high price, the British took to tea drinking with enormous enthusiasm. In the eighteenth century there was a clear gap between the large number of people who wanted to enjoy tea regularly, and the relatively small number of people who could actually afford to do so. Until this was remedied, smuggling was the main source of affordable tea, because the smugglers were based in coastal areas and their networks spread across the countryside, it drove the enthusiasm for tea drinking out of the larger towns and cities and into rural areas.
There also raged debate about the health benefits and moral implications of lower social classes drinking tea; some argue that this was founded on desire for social control rather than medical evidence, the health benfits being scientifically proven centuries later. During the 1830's, the Temperence Movement which sought to reduce mass gin drinking by endorsing the consumption of non-alcoholic beverages also promoted drinking tea drinking tea in the lower classes. From the 1880s, tea rooms and tea shops became popular and fashionable, particularly among women, for whom they offered a most welcome and respectable environment in which to meet, chat and relax, without the need to be accompanied by a man.
While tea was part of the staple diet of the poor, among the rich tea-drinking was evolving into an elaborate social occasion. Afternoon teas probably had their roots in the ladies tea-parties of the seventeenth centuries, but evolved during the eighteenth century into something of a national institution. Tradition has it that afternoon tea was 'invented' by Anna Maria, the wife of the seventh Duke of Bedford, who in 1841 started drinking tea and having a bite to eat in the mid-afternoon, to tide her over during the long gap between lunch (eaten at about 1 o'clock) and dinner (eaten at around 7 o'clock). Although it is widely believed that Anna was responsible for the invention of afternoon tea more in-depth research proposes that due to her closeness to Queen Victoria and royal scandal she merely helped the ritual evolve by hosting sought after gatherings where she would reportedly share her salacious gossip with her friends. By the 1860s the fashion for afternoon tea had already become widespread. Such teas were elegant affairs, with tea drunk from the best china and small amounts of food presented perfectly on little china plates. On offer might be bread and butter, scones and cakes, and sandwiches with the crusts cut off. There was a fashion for women to wear tea gowns, but these were softer and less restrictive than evening gowns, and it was not always deemed necessary for women to wear gloves. Nonetheless many did, and the author of The Etiquette of Modern Society points out that a thoughtful hostess should always provide biscuits with tea, since these can be eaten more easily than sandwiches without removing one's gloves.
Some poorer households also adopted the practice of afternoon tea, and in some areas women pooled their resources and equipment in order to make such occasions affordable. But more common among the working classes was 'high tea'. During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when most people worked in agriculture, the working classes tended to have the main meal of their day at midday, with a much lighter supper late in the evening. But after the industrial revolution, more and more people were employed for long shifts in factories or mines, and hot midday meals were thus less convenient. They were also not approriate for the increasing numbers of children who were at school during the day. The custom developed of having a high tea in the late afternoon, at the end of the working day, consisting of strong tea, and hearty, hot food. Unlike afternoon tea, high tea was the main meal of the day, rather than a stop-gap between lunch and dinner.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, there could be no doubt about the importance of tea to the British people. This was acknowledged by the government during the First World War. Tea was not initially rationed, but tea prices began to rise as a result of ships being sunk by German submarines, and so the government took over the importation of tea and controlled prices. During the Second World War, the government took even more drastic action to safeguard this essential morale-booster. Just two days after war broke out, it took control of all tea stocks, and ordered that the vast reserves then stored in London must be dispersed to warehouses outside the capital in case of bombing. When during 1940 enemy blockades prevented ships from getting through, the Minstry of Food introduced a ration of 2oz of tea per person per week for those over the age of five. This was not a lot, enough for two or three cups a day of rather weak tea. But there was extra tea for those in the armed forces, and on the domestic front for those in vital jobs such as firemen and steel workers. Tea was also sent in Red Cross parcels to British prisoners of war abroad. The end of the war in 1945 did not signal an immediate end to rationing, and tea remained rationed until October 1952. It was shortly after this that the tea bag, an American invention, began to make an impact on British tea-drinking habits. It was to revolutionise the tea industry, and today 96 per cent of all tea sold in Britain is in tea bag form.
George Orwell offered sensible advice to make the 2oz ration go as far as possible. Rationing by no means diminished the British enthusiasm for tea. In January 1946, the author and journalist George Orwell published an essay called 'A Nice Cup of Tea' in the Evening Standard newspaper, calling tea 'one of the main stays of civilsation in this country', and listing his 11 'golden rules' for tea making.He acknowledged the controversial nature of some of them - such as his insistence that the tea should be poured and then the milk added, and that tea should always be drunk without sugar - but he also offered sensible advice to make the 2oz ration go as far as possible, such as using water that is still at the point of boiling, in order to make the strongest brew from the least tea. Orwell also used the ritual of tea-making as a device in his fiction. In his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, the main character, Gordon Comstock, makes tea secretly in his rented room as a means to undermine the oppressive authority of his landlady, who does not allow it. But the ritual and secret delight of Comstock's evening cup of tea also reveals something about himself: Comstock, an aspiring poet, has attempted to reject everything that he associates with bourgois society - but he cannot reject its favourite drink.
Certainly for much of the twentieth century, methods of preparing tea were still the subject of some snobbery: in a letter to Nancy Mitford (a social commentator and great satirist of upper class behaviour), the author Evelyn Waugh mentions a mutual friend who uses the expression 'rather milk in first' to express condemnation of those lower down the social scale. Nowadays the 'milk in first or tea in first' debate is altogether more light-hearted, but nonetheless everyone has his or her preferred method of making tea. Tea has for centuries been a beverage at the very heart of social life in Britain - and for millions of people today with a vast array of tea varieties to suit all tastes and moods.
Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford
Tea was a luxurious way of life
Tea rooms became an important social opportunity for women
Tea was essential to the war effort
Wartime ration book
Our own cream tea
Traditional Chinese teapot and cup
Tea rooms became popular from the 1880's
copyright 2013 JellyPickleJam