Tea drinking has come a long way since Victorian and Edwardian England’s stuffy drawing rooms. Today we make our own rituals and trends of Tea from fruit, flower and herbal infusions, individual private tea blends to Japanese Tea ceremonies and Matcha green, White and Pu-erh Teas. We can visit the grandest of old homes and hotels across the globe for lavish High Teas or enjoy your favourite brew of perhaps Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Oolong or Orange Pekoe, shared with a friend at home, in a cafe or a Tearoom. But Tea in our digital age, or T, is slang for gossip, especially on social media. To give Tea means to tell a story or share a scoop, most probably about celebrities.
The slang use of the word Tea, is said to have originated from “the custom in the American South of women who gather in the afternoon to drink tea and gossip.” As is the custom in the UK, Ireland and just about everywhere else. Nothing like a cuppa to start a good chat, share a confidence or to embellish a story!
Since afternoon Tea began in the English Court in the middle of the 17th century, by Catherine of Braganza. The fashion spread to the middle classes in the 18th century, and women set in motion a ritual that remains popular today. An afternoon respite to talk, drink tea and gossip. The ritual began because men were accustomed to going out to lunch or coffee houses for the afternoon, to talk to their contemporaries about business and politics, and women were left at home. Dinner was the formal meal and served late, so to alleviate the hunger of a very long afternoon, tea began to be drunk by the elite classes.
Queen Victoria herself established her love of afternoon tea. It then became commonplace for women to invite friends over for tea in the late afternoon. It was a fashionable and enjoyable opportunity for a delicious snack of biscuits, and cakes. The tea table was also an opportunity to share news, whispers and stories.
Later, Tea Emporiums and Tearooms became fashionable, and were considered to be safe places for women to go alone to meet their friends. Afternoon Tea became a more lavish, and elaborate party for people to share the tea table, talk over scandals or titbits of news in the Tatler or Ladies Fashionable Repository. The upper and middle classes were the forerunners of afternoon tea that provided an opportunity for women to express their fashion sense, and to display refinement and elegance in their conduct, but it was also an example of women’s place in a patriarchal society.
On the other hand, poor and working class women were chastised for excessive tea drinking and for not abiding to the rules of etiquette for the tea table. Women who did not uphold the strict social rules and etiquette were called ignorant and were thought to be undermining their family and society with the over consumption of Tea.
Popular art and literature of the 1800’s reflected the social issues of unregulated tea-drinkingby upholding high standards, propriety, and respectability. By expressing a comedic outlook, and satirical view of women and the Tea Table. As we read in “Pride and Prejudice,” Mr Collins considered the invitation to have “Tea” with Lady Catherine to be a great honour bestowed upon Miss Elizabeth Bennet and her friends. An invitation to drink tea ‘at home’ was considered a huge honour.
The author Lewis Carroll in 1865, wrote one of the best examples of Tea Table TittleTat in Alice in Wonderland and The Mad Hatters Tea Party
Satirists of the period like Anglo Irish author, Johnathan Swift (1667 –1745) believed that tea had a contrary effect upon the humour of the mind. They thought the tea-table was the playing field for feminine displays of backbiting and scandal. As he describes a lady enjoying her cup of tea:
It is not only a sense of scandal, and gossip that Tea imbibes but the role of confidante, as in William Makepeace Thackeray’s book Pendennis.
Pull out the family Teapot and relax with your favourite Tea brew and make up your own special ways that you like to drink Tea and share a confidence with a friend.
All content Di Baker February 2020 with thanks to Wiki medi, Unsplash and Fine Art America for the images. Read more on the History of Afternoon Tea here
Title quote by Henry Fielding (1707-1754) “Love in Several Masques”