The Ritual of Tea …


Tea and conversation

One of the great ceremonies of Regency life, one that defined gentility, was the taking of tea.

The Regency is sorta midway in the story of tea in England. We’re past the Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Century with its careful, stingy measuring of tea by the mistress of the household, the leaves locked up safe in a decorative caddy. We haven’t reached the Victorian era where tea was the daily drink of every working man and city housewife.

John MacDonald, a footman in the last half of the Eighteenth Century, would negotiate a salary that included an allowance for tea and sugar. But when he writes:

“My master had always plenty of fine tea, of which I drank some in the afternoon, and with which I treated the maid, and the maid also at the next house.”

I’m pretty sure he’s helping himself to the household store. At this time, tea is still a particular treat belowstairs.

When we come to early Victorian times … Henry Mayhew, in London Labour and the London Poor, speaking of the 1840s, describes the street sellers.

Coffee and tea stall

Tea for sale, click for closeup

“There are, moreover, peculiar kinds of stalls — such as the hot eels and hot peas-soup stalls, having tin oval pots, with a small chafing-dish containing a charcoal fire underneath each, to keep the eels or soup hot. The early breakfast stall has two capacious tin cans filled with tea or coffee, kept hot by the means before described.”

In 1840, tea had ceased to be a servants’ perquisite, reluctantly granted by the employer and pilfered by the staff. Now it’s on the street. It’s Everyman’s drink.

But back to the parlor …

The taking of tea in the parlor meant slow, stylized ritual and unnecessary elaboration. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum from the hurried dipping tea out of a capacious tin can.

Consider this spread of tea complication.

Jean liotard still life tea set 1783

A pretty wild tea party, looks like

Going along from the left:

Teapot with its lid. Behind it, the tea caddy where the tea leaves live. In front of the tea pot, a cup, saucer, and silver spoon. The center spot on this tray is a shallow plate with orange slices. It might just as easily hold scones or muffins.

Working our way in from the right:

We have the slops bowl in back. That is a lovely useful thing to have, isn’t it? I kinda wish we had slops bowls for our lives where we could clear all the mess neatly away and go on with the tea party.

What else? There’s the bowl of sugar cubes. These cubes were not neatly square. They were nipped off the two-foot-high cone of sugar kept in the kitchen and came out irregular and all nobbly shaped. Over the sugar bowl are the sugar tongs. And here at the front of the sugar bowl is the milk jug.

Missing from this set is the strainer. About all the paintings I find of folks drinking tea,

Tea strainer 1780s V &A

Tea strainer

the tea strainer is nowhere in evidence. Yet they had them. They’re in museums. One would certainly have strained the tea leaves out of the drink at some point. Maybe they were considered too messy to put in the picture.

Also missing from this array is the kettle of hot water that sat over on the hearth

Tea kettle by the fire

The copper water kettle is by the fire click for closeup

keeping warm. The water would be used to warm up and dilute the tea in the teapot. You couldn’t hoist the teabags out of the water and put an end to the brewing, there not being any teabags yet. However long the tea party lasted, that was how long the tea steeped.

Here we have folks taking tea and the kettle is right there in evidence. One could also have a tea urn or samovar with coals under it, keeping warm, right there on the table.


Tea wter kettle on stand 1753

Silver kettle to heat water

This here is a silver tea kettle that would have had pride of place. The comment on this piece at the Victoria and Albert:

“The tea kettle and stand would have been the most expensive part of the tea service. For example, Mrs. Coke paid the goldsmith … £25 13s 1d for her kettle and lamp. Her teapot cost just £10 1s 8d.”

That comparative value is not set in stone. The best porcelain would cost more than uninspired silver,  but all things being equal, a silver tea service was the conspicuous consumption of the time. When the aged retainer staggers in with a tea tray full of silver teapots and silver slop bowls and what have you, it’s not just heavy. It’s (staggeringly) expensive.

But by the Regency, not all tea was drunk in the parlor with such magnificent display.


Be nice to have somebody bring this to your desk

We also have a cozier, more informal tea taking. One little pot of tea, prepared in the kitchen and brought up with a cup or two at the side. That was the tea laid down at the hero’s elbow while he worked on his accounts or the tea brought to the heroine and her sister as they put their heads together and plotted.

Making tea

Morning tea. Yellow and red tea caddies at the back

Chardin 1735

This is my tea service there on the left. Rough and ready. But see that tea pot? It is of an ancient design. See it there in the painting by Chardin? And the little tea bowl is handmade by an artist in such things. I’m happy using this set. It makes me feel good, every time.


Do you have a tea set or a coffee service that is a joy to hold in your hands? Maybe something you inherited or bought at a special time of your life. Maybe a present.

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.