Tea is always served by the host/hostess or a friend, never by servants. Tea is never poured out, then passed several cups at a time, the way coffee may be, because it cools very quickly. Instead, it is always taken by the guest directly from the hands of the pourer.” – Etiquette Scholar
The ceremony of making tea is almost always included in costume dramas like Downton Abbey or a Jane Austen film, such as Emma. When Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham invited her daughter-in-law, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), to the Dower House for tea in Downton Abbey, the arranged time was most likely at four o’clock in the afternoon.
In one particular scene, the two women entered the drawing room in which a small table had been laid out with an elaborate tea set, fine china, and silver spoons. An assortment of tiny sandwiches, cookies, and scones were arranged upon a beautiful batttenburg lace tablecloth that covered the table. Low tea (an Edwardian dowager would never have said high tea) was meant to blunt the appetite before dinner.
A tea ceremony provided an intimate setting between the hostess and her guests, for it was the hostess who prepared and served the tea, catering to each guest and handing them their custom-prepared tea one cup at a time. In this time honored ritual, one of the most important questions the dowager would ask was: “Would you care for weak tea or strong tea?” Cora’s preference would guide the Countess in the next stage of tea preparation, for if she said “strong tea,” then the Dowager would pour the tea as she had prepared it into Cora’s cup. Had Cora said “weak tea”, the Countess would pour a smaller quantitiy of the brew into the china cup, then top it off with hot water.
The Dowager would then ask her guest how much milk and sugar to add. She would have poured boiling water over the tea leaves in a tea pot, and steeped the leaves for three minutes, all the while conversing with her guests. At this point the water was no longer boiling. Then the Countess would pour in the milk. (If she poured it in first, she would have found it difficult to judge the strength of the tea by its color.) Hudson, the butler in Upstairs, Downstairs, said about pouring milk into tea: “Those of us downstairs put the milk in first, while those upstairs put the milk in last.”
History of Low Tea
On September 25, 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded: “did send for a cupp of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drank before.” By June 1667, tea was considered to be a healthy drink. One day Pepys arrived home to find his wife making tea, which his apothecary had found good for her cold.
Samuel Johnson was a self-described “hardened and shameless tea drinker, who has, for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea muses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and with tea welcomes the morning.” His chronicler James Boswell observed that “It was perfectly normal for him to drink sixteen cups in very quick succession, and I suppose no person ever enjoyed with more relisht the infusion of that fragrant leaf than did Johnson.”
Until the 1760’s, only the rich could afford teapots, which were made of silver. Then in 1765 Queen Charlotte commissioned Josiah Wedgwood to create a tea service made from his quality cream colored earthenware, which he named Queen’s Ware (with the Queen’s permission, of course) and gave to her as a gift. From that moment on he was the Queen’s potter. Wedgwood’s creamware was thin, attractive and durable. After receiving the Queen’s patronage, his firm became quite famous. The attractive new tableware quickly became popular, and by 1775 other manufacturers, including those on the Continent, had widely copied Wedgwood, imitating Queensware and creating increasingly fanciful teapots. It is said that this tableware was instrumental in spreading the popularity of tea.
In 1840, the Duchess of Bedford began serving tea with refreshments in the afternoon to appease her appetite before dinner, and the custom of afternoon tea, or low tea, took off. To read more about drinking tea between the 18th and mid-19th centuries, read my post about Tea in the Regency Era.
Some interesting facts about tea:
- Notice, this is a change: The difference between high tea and low tea: Low, or afternoon, tea is served at four o’clock with light snacks, such as sandwiches, cookies, and scones. High tea is a full meal served with tea, including meat, bread, side dishes and dessert on a table of regular height. Hence high tea.
- Tea cups at first were fashioned after Chinese bowls without handles or saucers. In the mid 1750-s, a handle was added to prevent ladies from burning their fingers.
- A saucer was once a small dish for sauce. During the Dowager Countess’s day, it was acceptable to pour tea into a cup’s saucer to cool the beverage before drinking it.
- In the late 17th century, a lady would lay her spoon across the top of her cup to signal that she was through drinking. Other signals included turning the cup upside down, or tapping the spoon against the side of the cup.
- Filling the cup with tea almost to the rim is considered a faux pas.
- This blog’s posts about tea in the Regency era
- Tea and Etiquette, Dorothea Johnson, James Norwood Pratt, 2002
- How to Make a Proper Cup of Tea
- Etiquette Scholar
- Edwardian Tiffany Tea set
- Victorian tea set
- Queen’s ware party dinner service
- Queen’s ware miniature tea and coffee service
- English Tea Time History