When most people think of Britain, they think of two things: the Queen and tea. Tea has been a massive part of British culture for more than two centuries by the time the Victorian era arrived. The English upper class began drinking tea, imported from China to Europe by the Dutch East India Company starting in the early 1600s.
The Victorian era saw the incredible rise of tea throughout Britain. Tea was not only for the wealthy; the beverage was something people of all classes could enjoy. You could tell a person’s status in the English home by what tea they served, what they wore, and the tea accessories or “tea things” they used. Read on to learn about the history of the Victorian era and how British tea culture and fashion affected centuries to come.
“Surely a pretty woman never looks prettier than when making tea.” — Mary Elizabeth Braddon.
The Victorian Era
We can trace the British tea culture back to when tea became a staple in British life during the Victorian era – but what exactly defines the Victorian era?
Historians state that the Victorian era is the 63-year period in which Queen Victoria reigned over Britain from 1837 to 1901. At 18 years old, young Victoria took the throne and became the second longest-reigning monarch after Queen Elizabeth II. During Victoria’s reign, it saw Britain becoming the world’s most powerful empire—one of Britain’s greatest eras.
We saw the world’s first industrial revolutions and social change during the Victorian era, the railway boom, and the first telephone and telegraph. This time also saw tea move from China to northeastern India, which was under British rule.
But wait, how did tea move from China to India? Indeed tea didn’t just move; instead, tea was stolen from China along with the ancient Chinese tea-making secrets. This historic tea-heist happened when a Scottish plant-hunter disguised as a Chinese noble-man smuggled tea and all the tea-caboodles out of China so that Britain could secure her favorite drink!
Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Russell, is the woman who invented the afternoon tea around the year 1840. Since Britain was becoming increasingly urbanized, dinner time was being pushed later and later in the higher and wealthier classes. Soon, many people of the upper classes were having dinner around 8 or 9 at night.
However, although the English were having dinner so late, they still had lunch early in the afternoon, close to noon.
The Duchess, who was also one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, would describe that the void between lunch and dinner was too great, and so she requested some tea along with bread, butter, and cakes be sent to her room. From this Afternoon tea was born.
In the early days, afternoon tea would be held in the boudoir of wealthy ladies’ homes, indulged by herself or shared with friends. From there, afternoon tea poured out of the boudoir into gardens and other more public rooms in the estate for more company.
From there, in later years, afternoon tea moved into the posh upscale hotels of London.
Tea and cake had become such a tradition and spread across Britain’s upper classes, becoming a fashionable practice. Afternoon tea was a big deal for women in the Victorian era, as ladies could entertain friends without their husbands around; a sense of freedom for women began to take hold in the mid-1800s.
Tea Accessories, aka “Tea things.”
Tea was something that many English homes enjoyed, no matter the class of the family in society. All the tea-ware and tea accessories represented the hostess’s level of sophistication. If you were well off, your tea drinking came with many beautiful, decorative accessories that you could show off.
The tea-ware accessories included fine porcelain bowls, teacups, saucers, beautifully painted teapots. Along with the expensive tea-ware came tea caddies, made of the finest mahogany, silver tea urns, and even personalized blends of tea!
For British ladies of the higher class, afternoon tea was a way to show their identity, status, and taste.
If you have ever read any Jane Austen novels, you will have noticed how she calls tea accessories “tea things.” In her books, Jane Austen uses tea time and tea things to bring characters together or set them apart. The author understood how tea could be a bonding thing within groups of characters and adeptly used tea in her stories.
You would have noticed, though, how tea and tea things are only just mentioned but never gone into detail over – she used the beverage as a joining mechanism for two scenes (like dinner and recreation after). Having a cup of hot tea makes reading Jane Austen novels even more enjoyable for sure.
Milk or Tea First?
This question seems to brew a great debate in recent years – do you put your milk in your mug first, or your tea first? Like any sane human, I put my tea first, so I know how much milk to use.
Back in the Victorian era, it was good practice to put your milk into your teacup first because most teacups were porcelain. Putting milk in before the tea avoids the heat from cracking the teacup. This “milk in first” custom gave rise to the term “Miffy” to those who still practice the custom.
Of course, for the tea-purists, we wouldn’t think of doing such a thing. Hence, the term “Tiffy” was born—”tea-in-first.” There are fierce debates between Miffy’s and Tiffy’s in the tea-realm for which of the customs make a better cup of tea.
Tea & Fashion
Talking about the Victorian era and the creation of afternoon tea, we can’t forget to talk about the fashion it brought along! Tea and style, fashion and tea; they have not always gone hand in hand, but in the Victorian era, this was a time to show off your fashion style for the other ladies attending the afternoon tea.
Although afternoon tea creation came around 1840, we didn’t see a change in tea time fashion until about 1870, when tea gowns made an appearance.
By this time, the ladies established tea drinking as a social event and as a sign of hospitality to their friends and family relations, which appealed to the rising middle class. Through afternoon tea entertainment, a distinctive form of dress accompanies the jubilant tea occasion.
You may think, “what is a tea gown?” and you’re probably not alone in that thought. Before afternoon tea became the social event of the century (no pun intended), tea time primarily took place in homes, where you could wear a gown that fell into the category of “undress.”
The term “undress” classified clothing as the least formal in fashion categories; it’s the equivalent to modern-day sweatpants and tank tops.
Before the 1870s, they labeled the tea gown as an interior gown—dresses that still had flares of being formal enough for being in public. The biggest difference between interior gowns and other Victorian dresses seen in public is that interior gowns were more loose-fitting, coming without the usual corset in most dresses’ bodice.
Tea gowns were much more comfortable to wear, and ladies could put them on without a maid’s help. However, to keep the modesty, the dresses came with a high neckline. But the gowns intended for an evening tea sometimes came with a lower neckline, considered daring for those times.
The tea gown grew increasingly popular and lasted through the Victorian era, all the way into the 1930s. Soon, tea gowns became a staple in every woman’s wardrobe for tea time wear.
As the years went by, tea time became more flexible throughout the day, meeting outside porches and gardens. During the summer months, fashion houses often made tea gowns of white eyelet material with lace or embroidery of some sort.
In the cooler months, tea gowns came in darker colors and heavier materials. More changes in the tea gown that came in later years were the length; in the 1920s, we saw the dresses become shorter to about mid-calf or just above the ankle.
Tea is infused into British culture to this day. Afternoon tea has become a quintessential British cultural icon, as high-end hotels offer sumptuous tea services worldwide. Today, tea is the most popular drink after water. And tea will always be something best shared with other tea-drinkers.
After reading this article, I hope you have learned how tea changed a whole era, particularly for women. Or was it the Victorian era that changed tea forever? Whichever way it was, we know that tea is steeped in our culture and history and will always be a welcome drink wherever you are.
If you enjoyed reading this article, check out our other posts to learn more about how tea has shaped the world!