Sipping Tea, Georgian Style


If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty. 
        Japanese Proverb

Joanna here, dipping into the subject how we drink tea, Eighteenth Century style.
Five-Oclock-Tea walker cropped Is there no Latin word for Tea?  Upon my soul, if I had known that I would have let the vulgar stuff alone.
        Hilaire Belloc


No Latin for tea because tea didn't travel the silk roads all the way to the west.  In Roman times, tea was an entirely Chinese secret.  Tea only made it to Europe about 1600, the Dutch and the Portuguese carrying it home along with the other spoils of oriental trade. 

 Galleon wii

It was the Age of Enlightenment. 
The Age of Exploration.  
The Age of Discovery. 
Europeans needed more than ale to fortify them for these earthshaking events.  They took to tea, coffee and chocolate like ducks to watercress.  

Within a half century of landing in Europe — lickety-split as these things go — tea established itself in England.  A 1657 advertisement offers it at Thomas Garraway's coffee house:

“This excellent beverage, recommended by all Chinese doctors, and which the Chinese call ‘Tcha’, other nations ‘Tay’ or ‘Tee’, is on sale at Sultaness Mead close to the Royal Exchange in London.”

Author Real Life aside here:  The fortune cookie I got at lunch today — my fortune cookies keep trying to teach me Chinese, which is kind of them, of course — tells me that 'teapot' is ch'a ha
This is an example of synchronicity. 
It also reminds us that the word for 'tea' or 'chai', like the words for coffee, chocolate, coca cola, television, whiskey and Angelina Jolie, stays about the same all over the world.
Returning to the late Seventeenth Century.

Europe, having got hands on tea, also imported lovely cups to drink tea from.  Meissen and Sèvres started making their own porcelains after the Chinese model — pretty cups, with and without handles, and equally pretty bowl-like saucers for them.    

 Cup and saucer chelsea pottery mid c18 v and a Meissen tea bowl and saucer 1725 Sevres tea cup republican devices 1793 to 1800 v and a

These early Eighteenth Century cups were often on the small side.

This cup, for instance, is only an inch and a half tall.  That's half the size of Late c17 early c18 4 cm by 6 2 cm v and a crop a teacup today.  It holds about a third as much. 

Look at the size of the cups in some of the pictures below.  You'll agree they are relatively itty bitty.

Folks tended to drink tea in a sip or two and get more fresh from the pot which made the whole tea pouring ceremony more lively, I should imagine. 
When Madame de Sévigné writes, "Saw the Princesse de Tarente . . . who takes 12 cups of tea every day," this does not mean the Princesse was just sloshing with tea.

How did people manage these small and handleless cups?  Pre'y much like this:

A-Family-Of-Three-At-Tea,-C.1727 cropped
Man and child drinking tea c1720

The making of tea in the early Eighteenth Century, was a drama enacted at the table with a whole bunch of props.  Let's take a look at a tea set.

Jean liotard still life tea set 1783

Starting on the left-hand side, we have the tea pot.  Below that are our handless cups. 

Notice how they seem to have been doled out on the tray upside down. 
Folks did this.  Presumably an upside down cup was not as apt to fall over during transportation.  And things didn't fall into it.
Or something.

  A-Tea-Party nicolaes verkoljecropped A-Tea-Party nicolaes verkolje recropped

DUMESNIL Pierre Louis Le Jeune le traitant c18 crop Breakfast_in_bed-cassat 1897 cropped

Continuing anit-clockwise around the tea things we come to the cream pitcher.  Above that is the very large sugar bowl.

That is just an amazing amount of sugar, isn't it? 

Two or three forces at work here making the sugar bowl so big.  The first is that sugar was expensive, so this was conspicuously showing off a luxury good.  The second is that sugar lumps had to be 'nipped off' a big, solid cone shape down in the Sugar cone kitchen.  This was time consuming and awkward so you didn't want to do it all that often.  You laid in a supply.  It's a bit like having a big woodpile.  You can't fit all that into the fireplace, but you like it handy.
The third reason for having a big sugar bowl is that every lump was handmade and idiosyncratic.  You wanted a nice choice.  Probably it was a delicate challenge wondering whether the 'two lumps' Aunt Edith wanted were big lumps or small.

The metalwork on top of the sugar bowl is a pair of sugar tongs, the handle to the right.

Center stage on the tray is bread-and-butter, which was what you got fed at tea in the Eighteenth Century.
This is so wrong.  

Moving our consideration back to the sugar bowl and up a bit, we come to the slops bowl, the final resort of all slops, liquid or solid.  There is a robust realism about an age that provides a slops bowl in the tea service.  Since they moved ash trays off restaurant tables there is nothing remotely resembling this in modern eateries.

If we complete our circuit of the tea tray we come at last to the tall thingum behind the tea pot. The tea canister. 

Antique-tea-caddy attrib veronika You must imagine an era so primitive they hadn't invented the tea bag.  The robust flavor of cheap paper not yet added to the tea.  Tea came in what might be considered its pretechnological state — loose dried leaves.  Tea was expensive, so they made pretty and expensive objects to put it in.  Tea caddy v and a staffordshire 1760 to 1770

Tea arrived in 'tea canisters' of ceramic or metal.  Beautiful things.  These early 1700s canisters would be placed in a box, with one side for black tea and one for green and a bowl for Tea chest late c18 v and aTea caddy 1804 v and a measuring and mixing. 

By 1800, this box was called a tea caddy, from the Chinese weight, kati, about six hundred grams, (1-1/3 pounds).  Large ones might be called tea chests.

There is a great deal of poetry and fine sentiment in a chest of tea. 
        Ralph Waldo Emerson

Author real life note here:  I buy a couple sorts of coffee and mix them because it makes me feel powerful and creative.  
In Regency times, tea had become less expensive.  There was no need to keep it in the parlor under the eagle-eye of the lady of the house.  Tea was made in the kitchen and brought up on the tea tray.  The tea caddy, (I've been waiting to say this since I saw it in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica,) gradually fell into desuetude.

Now we come to some of the English weird about tea.
First off, the English added sugar and milk. 

Here's how I think that happened. 
Like every newly introduced food, tea was regarded with some suspicion.  In the early 1700s it was still treated as a tonic — something likely to be good for you.  Often, tea was what you took with the nice healthful milk you were drinking. 

For instance, Madame de Sévigné writes, "It is true, Madame de Sabliere took tea with her milk; she told me so the other day; but it was from choice of taste,"

Milk or cream took the curse off the medicinal tea, as it were.  One sage remarks,
"Tea drinking is doubtless very proper in such cases, (i.e. bilious cholicks and weak nerves,) and especially by the addition of the milk, which renders it more powerful, in blunting the acid points of the bile."  
Useful to know.

When tea got frivolous and became merely a delightful enjoyment, sugar and milk followed it into its new role.

More English strange ensued. 
They poured the tea into the cup.  
They added cream and sugar. 
Then they poured the tea into the saucer. 
Pouring tea into saucer cropped new

Right.  You didn't necessarily drink out of the cup.  Sometimes you drank it out of the saucer.  You had a 'dish of tea'. 

Here we got a couple of folks drinking tea out of their saucer with the greatest gentility.

FamilyDukePenthièvre drinking chocolate crop Pouring tea into saucer left side crop  

Why did they do this?  Why did they drink tea out of a saucer?
To cool it quickly?  Did the English have less patience than the Chinese? 
These were gentlepersons and they had all the time in the world.

Anyways, at this same time folks were complicatedly pouring tea into tea saucers, the same folks were drinking chocolate and coffee out of cups.
I mean, like . . . why? 

Though I have to say the idea of drinking chocolate out of a tippy, flattish bowl seems fraught with peril and I am glad, for the sake of all those lovely fabrics, that folks did not do this.

Here's my theory.
I think they were predisposed to drink tea out of a 'dish' because of porringers.  
Porringer ca 1680 1700 norfolk house pottery v and a crop Natoire charles joseph petit cgarcon debout buvant louvre crop

A porringer was a bowl sort of affair for dinking broth or caudle or posset.  Posset was a milky drink.  Caudle was a hot drink often given to the sick. 

Here was tea, starting out as a milky medicine or tonic.  Probably the tea 'dish' was seen as equivalent to the porringer.    

There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea.
        Bernard-Paul Heroux

 By the mid- to late- Eighteenth Century, tea caught up with its cousins, coffee and chocolate, and graduated to a cup with a handle.  Drinking tea from a 'dish' gradually became old-fashioned and rural and slid slowly down the social scale.  By Victorian times, drinking tea from a saucer was for elderly great Bogdanov a young boy drinking tea c 1900 cropaunts, their fretful little dogs, Eastern Europeans, and sturdy workmen on their Elevenses.

Dickens, writing much later, says:
"And yet the washerwoman looked to her afternoon 'dish of tea,' as something that might make her comfortable after her twelve hours' labour; and balancing her saucer on a tripod of three fingers, breathed a joy beyond utterance as she cooled the draught."

 Coffee stall 3crop

More author real life stuff.  I remember my father pouring hot coffee into his saucer to drink it when he was in a hurry and wanted it to cool off quickly.

Sticking out your pinky when you drink tea had to wait till tea cups acquired a handle, as you will discover if you attempt to drink tea from a handleless cup and simultaneously hold out your pinky. 
(Don't try this at home.) 

AfternoonTeaMaryCassatt 1880 crop As soon as they had a handle to grip onto, folks lifted the pinky up.  Now whether this was done to indicate delicacy or whether it is that one cannot, in a practical way, fit a multitude of fingers onto one little cup, is unclear. 
I have tried pinky up and pinky down and can't really detect a difference in the flavor of the tea.Polite lady drinking tea cropped

Pinkies raised does not seem to have hit coffee drinkers.   Perhaps coffee was considered a more robust drink that had to be kept under firmer control.

  I have not said a word about tea-in-first or milk-in-first.  This is  because I can't get past the 'Why would you add milk?' question.  However, I am of firm opinion in the lemon-slice-before-or-after-the-tea debate. 
The lemon slice is mean to float daintily on top, like the Lady of Shallot, not drown like Ophelia. 


It's always afternoon tea, somewhere.

        Joanna Bourne 


photocredits:  pink flowered tea canister is cc attrib Veronik, sugar cone attrib felix


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What's your favorite tea story or quote?  One commenter will win a copy of Forbidden Rose or the modestly clad trade edition of Spymaster's Lady, your choice.