Tea Story

For the history buff or cultural explorer in you, read on to find out how afternoon tea began and how tea rituals differ around the globe. We’ve cobbled together the story from the reference library listed at bottom. If you’ve got favorite afternoon tea book or website suggestions, please share!

From East to West: How Afternoon Tea Came to the United States

Hills of tea

Tea plants, native to the hills of the Eastern hemisphere, were an intensely guarded secret for almost one thousand years. When trade routes were established to Asian lands, tea made its introduction to Middle Eastern, European, African and finally American societies. As it migrated west, the tea ceremony changed dramatically, adapting to the cultural norms of the time and place where its popularity peaked. While still an austere, spiritual ceremony in countries like China and Japan, afternoon tea for Westerners became a daily respite or social affair replete with savories and sweets.

In the United States, tea was not an instant hit, largely because it symbolized England, from whom Americans were seeking independence. To make do without purchasing tea from the British, Americans experimented with herbal teas. A century later, they created teabags, and on a hot summer day at the St. Louis World Fair, an Englishman invented iced tea (still preferred to hot tea — about 80% of tea Americans drink is iced).

Today, American teahouses, restaurants and hotels nationwide serve afternoon teas as different from one another as our diverse heritage, some offering a tea service and selection in the British style, others Lebanese, Japanese, Indian or Chinese. Anything goes in the U.S., such as the Southern afternoon tea — a dolled-up, lavish cousin to the British afternoon tea; or the teabar — tranquil, decorated with modern, Asian-inspired lines, serving hundreds of the finest teas and freshly made quiche from a Swiss chocolatier; or the afternoon tea served by Italian-Americans in New Jersey — with endless, unconventional scone combinations and portions so generous it really feels like dinner. Mangia, Mangia!

Lore and Origins of Afternoon Tea

3rd Century – Many stories are told and some written about tea and benefits of tea drinks. Chinese mythological tales cite the origin of tea-drinking to 2737 BC, when Chinese Emporor Shen Nung sips boiled drinking water into which a tea leaf has floated.

6th Century – Indian and Japanese legends tell that Indian prince Bodhidharma “couldn’t keep his eyes open while meditating to become a Buddhist priest. Disgusted with himself, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. From his lashes the camellia (aka tea) plant sprouted.” (1) Monks in China and Japan began saving the seeds of tea trees, planting them amidst their travels.

9th Century – Japanese Imperial tea master Sen Rikyu devises a simple, austere tea ceremony known as ‘wabi cha,’ or the “tea of quiet taste”, which requires a “humble reverence for tea and life. However, it did not appeal to the emperor who preferred a glittering, exhibitionist affair. Because of this difference in taste, Sen Rikyu was commanded to commit suicide.” (2) Tea, called “ch’a,” in China where it becomes the national drink during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 906), would remain China’s secret for the next 700 years. Tea leaves are so valuable that, compressed into embossed bricks, they are even used for money. “China was not about to divulge the propagation and drying methods that had been dutifully kept within the confines of the Great Wall. A penalty of death was the price paid for even mentioning roasting and drying.” (5) 

16th Century – In 1557, Portugal colonizes the Chinese port Macau, and begins bringing tea back to Europe. Arabs also bring tea to Europe by way of their trade with the Venetians in Italy, circa 1559. 

17th Century  As Russia and China works to establish a safe route for trade caravans to travel, the Chinese ambassador to Moscow makes a gift of several chests of tea to Tsar Aleksey Mikhaylovich, soon making tea a much desired import. “The Russian aristocracy enjoyed English-style tea ceremonies even before the British made it a part of their culture. There were lavish parties at which society women drank tea as their male companions downed cold vodka.” (3)

Russian Samovar
Russian Samovar

England Begins Taking Tea

1662 – Though Portuguese and Dutch traders have for decades been importing tea to Western Europe, it is King Charles II’s marriage to the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, that ultimately makes tea-drinking popular amongst the British aristocracy.

“When Catherine married Charles, she was the focus of attention – everything from her clothes to her furniture became the source of court talk. Her regular drinking of tea encouraged others to drink it. Ladies flocked to copy her and be a part of her circle.” (51)

“Indeed, the China trade eventually started England on a tea-drinking way of life, forever replacing ale as the national breakfast drink.” (4) “By the 18th century [in England], tea had become a national passion, and, even though it was so expensive, was brewed throughout the land. Once gentlefolk had drunk the first brew, their servants would make tea for themselves from the used leaves, and then in turn sell the twice-used leaves at the back door.” (6)

Tea Off to A Rough Start in America

17th Century – Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam bring the first tea to America, but Americans do not take instantly to the custom of taking tea. “There were still those new Americans who were unfamiliar with the tea leaf. Their dislike of the brown brew probably stemmed from the fact that it was stewed for two or three hours. Some tried to serve it like spinach with salt and butter, others ate it on toasted bread.” (7)

Late 18th Century – Americans Turn to Herbal Teas
“The Boston Tea Party was a protest against the massive taxation of the thirteen colonies, and one of the main reasons that America became a coffee-drinking nation was the vetoing, by the American housewife, of tea-drinking in support of her husband’s discontent with the British.” (8) “In 1773, the English forced their extra tea onto the American colonies by sending three tea ships from the East India Company to Boston. Angered by this attempt to control their market, colonists decided to rebel. A band of patriots disguised themselves as Mohawks, attacked the tea chests with axes, and emptied 342 of them into the water. The Boston Tea Party was one of the main events that led to the American Revolution.” (9)

Published the day after the Boston Port Bill closed Boston's port in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party, 1774
Published the day after the Boston Port Bill closed Boston’s port in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party, 1774

“The Daughters of Liberty supported the boycott of British tea. One patriot hosted a party to formally bid adieu to her treasured teaware:  “A Lady’s Adieu to Her Tea-Table:”

FAREWELL the Tea-board with your gaudy attire,
Ye cups and ye saucers that I did admire;
To my cream pot and tongs I now bid adieu;
That pleasure’s all fled that I once found in you.
…No more shall my teapot so generous be
In filling the cups with this pernicious tea,
For I’ll fill it with water and rink out the same,
Before I lose Liberty that dearest name…’ (10)

Many of today’s herbal teas are devised during American colonial times, as “irate colonists boycotted the East India Company, purchased tea from Dutch smugglers, and drank substitutes of infused leaves and roots.” (11) In 1796, “wounds were to be healed when Thomas Twining (son of the first Richard Twining) paid a courtesy visit to General George Washington at his presidential home.” (12)

19th Century – Taking Tea
Knowing how to properly use tea equipment and owning fine porcelain china sets you apart from your lessers, which is why teasets and tealeaves are often only handled by the mistress of the house, who keeps the key for the locking tea caddy. Either in the afternoon or evening, hostesses invite friends to tea as an affordable means of hosting larger groups, sharing news and gossip over tea and slices of bread, crumpets, toast or cake.

tea equipage of the 19th century

1840 – British Afternoon Tea Ceremony Is Born

Tea’s first retailer in England is the gentlemen’s coffeehouse, and then spreads to other more feminine venues, but “by the end of the 1700s, tea gardens had lost much of their popularity. Tea-drinking became much more of an ‘at-home’ activity and afternoon tea as we now know it came into being. The custom is credited to one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, Anna Maria, Duchess of Bedford of Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, around 1840. At that time, the day’s three meals were a heavy breakfast, a light lunch and a large dinner around eight or nine o’clock. The Duchess used to complain of feeling faint around five o’clock. To ward off that familiar late afternoon sinking feeling, she started serving tea with assorted sandwiches and small cakes. This aristocratic tea with its dainty snacks was quite different from the ‘high tea’ served around the same time in working class homes. The latter was a hearty meal consisting of cold meats, cheeses and bread, eaten when the men came home from the factories or fields.” (13)

(c) Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“Afternoon tea really was more of a social event than a meal. Ladies did not go to afternoon tea gatherings to eat but to meet their friends, catch up on gossip, chat about the latest fashions and scandals, be seen in the right places among the right people and, in passing, to drink tea and nibble daintily on a small finger of bread and butter or a little sweet biscuit. Once the trend had been set, all of fashionable society started to hold tea parties to suit almost any occasion – drawing room teas for groups of 10 or 20 visitors, small intimate teas for 3 or 4 friends, tea in the garden, ‘at home’ teas, tea receptions for up to 200 people, tennis teas, croquet teas, and picnic teas. The growing middle classes imitated the rich and found that tea was a very economical way of entertaining several friends without having to spend too much money. Pots of tea and a few small tea-time treats such as crustless sandwiches, hot buttered toast and scones, little pastries, and a cake or two were all that were required and expected.” (14)

1850s – Nevada’s newly discovered silver deposits and the “booming silver-plating industry leads to the proliferation of specialized silver pieces, many of them tea wares such as showy hot-water swing kettles, butter dishes, spoon holders, sugar tongs and cake baskets.” (41)

1864England’s Aerated Bread Company opens the first tea shop for middle-class women. “Soon Fortnum and Masons, The Ritz, and Brown’s Hotel had all opened tea rooms, and it became quite fashionable for women to visit these tea rooms in the afternoon. These tea rooms were, by the way, the only place where a lady could meet her friends without a chaperone without damaging her reputation.” (15) Eventually, “sweet and savory tidbits joined the tea table, until the Victorians were tucking into substantial spreads that included groaning cake stands, plates of bright jellies and meringues, and potted meats.” (16)

1877Philadelphia’s department store Wanamaker’s institutes the first American department store food service. “Department stores were home to some of the longest-lived tea rooms, beginning in the nineteenth century and going strong until the 1960s, with a few surviving today. These tea rooms, more than any other kind, earned reputations as places where well-behaved ladies — often actually wearing hats and white gloves — enjoyed dainty luncheons. Department store tea rooms established and maintained a standard of bourgeois decorum where good manners were required and ladyhood was cherished.” “Teatime in department stores had delicate tea sandwiches made of fig, lettuce, watercress, and a greater range of teas than found in most tea rooms.” (42)

Late 19th Century – Miniature tea set sales begin. “The miniature tea sets we now think of as gifts for children were originally created in the late nineteenth century by china manufacturers as salesmen’s samples. But when salesmen made their presentation to homemakers, the mothers wanted to buy the tiny sets for their children.” (17)

"Afternoon Tea (The Gossips)" by John Everett Millais, 1889
“Afternoon Tea (The Gossips)” by John Everett Millais, 1889

1904 – Iced tea is born in St. Louis. An Englishman named Richard Blechynden, a tea dealer at the St. Louis World Fair, “was trying to introduce Indian tea to Americans, but in the stifling weather he was getting few takers. After he dropped some ice cubes into the brew, thirsty people came flocking and iced tea was born. (18)

1908 – The tea bag is invented in New York. “Teabags were accidentally invented in 1904 by a New York tea merchant named William Sullivan, who hit upon the idea of sending samples to customers in hand-sewn silk bags, rather than the more common tea tins. He was soon flooded with orders – for tea in the convenient little bags.” (19)

1910 – Rural tea rooms begin cropping up along the new roads of America. “In the early days, most tea rooms were in New England and the Northeast, where the number of automobile registrations was high and roads were better. In the teens, when car travel was still primarily recreational, touring parties tended to be large, with four to seven people in one vehicle. A few carloads could fill a small tea room.” “Often tea room guests ate on terraces, verandas or piazzas — as yards, porches and patios were romantically known then.” “Quaint interiors supplied an excellent background for an antiques business and many tea rooms made a practice of displaying antique furniture or tableware by letting patrons use these items. Visitors were sometimes surprised when other guests bought a hooked rug from the floor or carried off the table they had been sitting at.” (43)

At a time when the social norm is that a restaurant is no place for a woman, tea rooms are often run, staffed and patronized by women. “The restaurant business was closely associated in many people’s minds with catering to appetites of all kinds, including sexual appetites. For a woman to enter this business at the turn of the century, even as an unescorted patron, was a risk to her reputation.” (44)

Women’s clubs, charities and alumni associations hold teas as fundraisers.

Elegant Tea II by Karen Dupré

American hotels create luxurious tea salons where the fashionable gather. “In the fall and winter social seasons of the 1910s, the hotel palm court was the place to be, half the crowd come to watch and the other half adorned were seated at reserved tables, to be seen.” “Hotel tea rooms often held tea dances, featuring full orchestras, popular in pre-WWI era, called thé dansants, even more popular once national Prohibition started in 1920.” (45)

1918 – “Russian tea rooms run by refugees from the 1917 revolution proliferated in cities for a time.” “In its American interpretation in the early 1920s, Russian tea was typically hot tea with a slice of lemon and a maraschino cherry, served in a tall glass with a handle.” (46)

1920s – Alcohol is Out and Tearooms Are In

Restaurant-goers unable to partake of alcohol during the United States’ prohibition era turn to tea rooms for their meals out, fueling a tea room boom. “By the 1920s, the tea room was a recognized national institution, with its stronghold on the main streets of cities, towns, and suburbs. It was a popular rendezvous for working women, shoppers, and businessmen, as well as whole families eating their evening meal.” “It was almost commonplace for upper-class women to enter the restaurant industry, usually via tea rooms.” (47) Tea rooms were commonplace in many parts of the country, occupying former stables, barns, mills, windmills, tollhouses, shipyards, churches and even a bowling alley and old coal boat.

“However, few early roadside tea rooms were to be found in the rural Midwest, or in the West except along the Pacific coast. Only a small number of tea rooms existed in the South (where eating out became commonplace only after WWII) except along the coastal route to Florida, which was heavily traveled by Easterners.” “As driving became more commonplace and a more diverse motoring public took to the roads in the late 1920s, tea rooms accompanying roadside cabin camps, general stores and gas stations opened. Often these were mom-and-pop operations, with mom running the tea room while pop pumped gas. Lacking the style and ‘class’ of other roadside tea rooms, some of these tea rooms undoubtedly represented what highway beautification programs sought to eradicate.” (48)

“When national candy manufacturers began selling wrapped and branded candy bars in the 1920s, they threatened the livelihood of small producers, who then began devoting part of their candy store space to tea rooms.” (49)

A jazz band at the tea dance in Hotel Esplanade Berlin, 1926
A jazz band at the tea dance in Hotel Esplanade Berlin, 1926

1930s – “The 1930s [in England] saw the heyday of another manifestation of the tea craze: tea dances. Held in ballrooms, town halls and hotels, they drew hundreds of young people on weekend afternoons. An entrance fee of about 30 cents bought tea, sandwiches and cakes, and a chance to dance to the music of the big bands popular at the time.” In the 1980s, tea dances “enjoyed a renaissance in modern England. Those same 1930s revelers, in their retirement, found tea dances an ideal way to kick up their heels in their golden years.” (20)

Mid-1930s – The cheesecloth tea bag is perfected.

Post-WWII – “To further streamline operations, post-WWII department stores whittled down their menus, eliminating afternoon tea and featuring quick lunch specials more in keeping with luncheonettes than stately dining rooms. Little by little, the grande dame department store tea room all but vanished.” (50)

Afternoon Tea Customs Around the World

1893 tea brochure
1893 New Zealand Grocer Flyer, Courtesy of New Old Stock

“The French don’t take milk in their tea – perhaps all the better to balance the violet-flavored creams and the cloudlike charlottes on their dessert plates.” (21)

“First concocted in France in 1653, tea punch has become a popular beverage all over the world. Punch is typically made with lemon, sugar and fruit juice, but there are any number of tasty variations to this festive drink.” (22)

“In the early days of tea drinking in England, mugs of silver, pewter, or just plain earthenware were used, the same mugs that had hitherto been used for the drinking of ale and porter…The Brits thought that pouring scalding-hot tea into the newfangled Chinese tea “bowls” would crack the delicate porcelain, so they put the milk in first!” (23)

“To own a porcelain teacup in the 18th century was to enjoy high social standing. Proud owners had their portraits painted holding a favorite cup. Guests toted to parties their own cups in special padded cases. Handles didn’t exist until about one hundred years ago. Before that, tea was drunk, Chinese-style, from a bowl whose saucer served as a lid to keep the beverage hot. Tea was poured into the saucer to cool before drinking.” (24)

“After a tea party, my mother followed the well-established habit of having two bowls of water sent to the drawing room, one soapy, the other for rinsing, along with a fine linen cloth, where she washed the cups and saucers herself. This, of course, was exactly what the mistresses of the household did in the seventeenth and eighteenth century England. China and porcelain of this fine quality were considered far too valuable for the servants to handle, and that is probably why so much of it survives to this day.” (25)

“In the 18th century, the hostess would blend her own balance of green and black teas, taking them from her caddy and measuring them with her silver caddy spoon into a crystal mixing bowl.” (26)

“Whiskery Victorians drank from Moustache Cups, which had a small ledge inside the brim upon which a moustache could rest without getting wet.” (27)

High Tea at ZenTea
Photograph courtesy of Hilary Coles / ZenTea

“The general rule is that the earlier tea is served, the lighter the refreshments. At three, tea is usually a snack – dainty finger sandwiches, petits fours, fresh strawberries; at six, it can be a meal – or ‘high’ tea – with sausage rolls, salads and trifle.” (28)

“You cannot visit Devon or Cornwall [England] without sampling the famous Cream Tea, with scones, jam, and clotted cream the rich colour of yellow garden roses.” (29)

“Afternoon tea must always start with sandwiches. You are not allowed to move on to the cakes and muffins until you have blunted the teeth of your appetite with a sandwich.” (30)

“Among the many old-fashioned roses is the group known as ‘tea roses.’ First introduced into Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, they were given their name by some unknown person – who thought they smelled like a newly opened tin of tea (perhaps because most tea imported to England in those days was perfumed with flowers).” (31)

dublin tea importer
Dublin Tea Importer, courtesy of New Old Stock

“Superstitions abound, particularly in the Irish kitchen. Stir clockwise so as to appease any specters. Cross all baked goods with a knife slash so as to release the devil. Bake Barm Brack, a yeast tea bread full of dried fruits and spices, with a ring in the middle. It is traditionally eaten at Halloween, and whoever gets the ring is said to have marriage in the immediate future.” (32)

“The tea ceremony developed from the Zen ritual. ‘Zen’ means meditation. Zen followers strive for communion with the inner essence of things. Zen masters believe that the banal and the spiritual are equally important. Everything, large and small, matters. At the core of Zen is the belief that greatness lies in the potential for everyday events to transcend the ordinary.” (33)

“Dim sum, classical Chinese tea fare, is eaten either at a teahouse or served at home. Literally translated, dim sum means ‘a point on the heart’; this translation illustrates the reverence for this culinary ritual.” (34)

“[In China] When the teapot is empty, a guest should signal the host by taking the teapot lid off. When one’s cup is filled, thanks are said by simply rapping two fingers sharply on the table top. This way, general conversation is not interrupted.” (35)

“Over 400 years ago, the Royal Physicians developed herbal teas at the request of the Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. The Emperor was very specific — his tea must provide pleasure and health, have an attractive appearance and a pleasant aroma. The Emperor instructed that these four characteristics must be met.” (36)

“When participating in a tea ceremony in Japan, you enter through a three-foot-high swinging gate, so low you are forced to bow and be humble. Symbolically, one gives up one’s ego. The required waiting station or “machiai” allows guests to make the transition from everyday life into the spiritual dimension of tea. This interlude prepares the guests to appreciate fully the quality of the tea celebration.” (37)

“In India, whenever you stop at a train station, you can buy tea in a baked clay pot. After you have enjoyed your tea, you may throw the cup out the window. Clay back to clay.” (38)

“In Northwestern Africa, harsh life on the Sahara is relieved by the refreshing ritual of drinking tea. During wars, nomadic traveling, or any desert adventure, all activity stops many times a day for tea. Everyone is required to drink three glasses when a pot of the sugary mint tea is made. There is a saying that accompanies the taking of tea, and it provides insight into the essence of life lived under a glaring sun where sometimes one’s only company is one’s shadow on the sand. It is said that the first cup of tea is as bitter as life; the second as sweet as love; the third as gentle as death.” (39)

To begin [a Russian tea ceremony], offer tea to your guests with the choice of a spoonful of preserves or a cube of sugar. The jam can be spooned directly into the tea, or eaten right from the dish with intermittent sips of tea. It flavors the drink and gives a boost of tart sweetness to the strong infusion. The sugar cube is traditionally clamped between the teeth while drinking the tea.” (40)

Afternoon Tea Reference Library

1, 2, 3, 7, 11, 15, 35, 39, 40 Israel, Andrea. Taking Tea. (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987). Print.

4, 21 Waller, Kim and the editors of Victoria magazine. The Art of Taking Tea. (New York: Hearst, 2002). Print.

6, 23, 25, 28, 30 Simpson, Helen. The London Ritz Book of Afternoon Tea. (New York: Arbor House, 1986). Print.

13, 20, 27 Hynes, Angela. The Pleasures of Afternoon Tea. (Tucson, AZ: H.P. Books, 1987). Print.

14  Pettigrew, Jane. “How Afternoon Tea Was Invented.” TeaMuse. Adagio Teas, December 2008. Web.

15  Copeman, Dawn. “It’s Time for Tea.” Mostly-Victorian.com. Web.

16 Foley, Tricia. Having Tea. (New York: C.N. Potter, 1987). Print.

8, 12, 16, 26, 29, 32, 34 Smith, Michael. The Afternoon Tea Book. (New York: Atheneum, 1986). Print.

9, 18, 22 Napier, Tanya. The Totally TEA-rific TEA Party Book. (San Francisco: Barron’s, 2002). Print.

17, 19, 31 Stuckey, Maggie. Country Tea Parties. (Pownal, Vermont: Storey Books, 1996). Print.

10, 24 Knight, Elizabeth. Tea with Friends. (Pownel, Vermont: Storey Books, 1998). Print.

33, 37, 38 Stoddard, Alexandra. Alexandra Stoddard’s Tea Celebrations: The Way to Serenity. (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1994). Print.

36 Long Life Herbal Tea Packaging

41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50  Whitaker, Jan. Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn, a Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America. (New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2002). Print.

51 Watkins, Sarah-Beth. Catherine of Braganza: Charles II’s Restoration Queen. (Croydon: Chronos Books, 2017). Print.