In the early 1600s the Portuguese and Dutch brought tea through trade from China. By about 1610 tea was regularly coming to Europe and being consumed by the upper classes as a luxury item. By 1657 roughly, it was a common item in England, and it was being served in the popular coffee houses in London and around the country.
Guess how much a pound of tea cost at the time? Around £10 and in today’s money that would be roughly £2,000 in today’s money or $2,500 USD! Per ounce that would be $156. Since most workers earned only around £50 a year, this made tea an exclusive treat for the wealthy.
Queen Catherine of Braganza, the Portugese wife of Charles II, introduced the custom of taking tea in 1662 in the English royal court. In about a century the culture of tea was bringing 7 million tons of tea from Canton in China, with about half going out on British ships. Which also meant it was a financial opportunity for the crown that began taxing tea imports by up to 119% in the mid-18th century.
This also gave rise to smuggling and the sale of cheap, lower-quality or even fake tea on the black market around the United Kingdom. Cutting tea with other ingredients included such things as licorice, sloe, wood pulp and “hawthorn or ash tree leaves boiled in sheep’ dung. Some green teas contained elder buds and others were dyed with copper verdigris.”
When taxes were reduced in 1784 to 12.5% a lot of the smuggling tapered off but the act of bulking up tea would continue through the Victorian era. As a middle class rose with the industrial revolution, the culture of emulating the upper class and having a higher standard of living enhanced the popularity of tea around the nation and into the “New World”.
We all know about the Boston Tea Party right? Well it had a lot to do with high taxes on tea and the British government taxing the colonists. At that time tea was very political for a variety of reasons, including resistance to British culture. Many cartoons of the time depict tea in various ways and even teapots were made to discuss the conflicts of the age. Abolitionists made teaware to also raise attention to plantation conditions in the Caribbean and the farming of sugar, which was used during tea time.
By the beginning of the 1800s tea was more affordable, and now sweetened with sugar and milk. The British quickly adopted tea as the national drink, and while other nations in Europe drink tea, coffee was far more popular and still is.
This tea culture became a domestic culture and a social ritual for women, where it was consumed indoors or in gardens. It was often used as a social gathering tool, inviting women into the home to gather and build close relationships. Culturally ment went to coffee houses to gather and after dinner many men would consume alcohol while women went for tea.
Tea service had many components that were often expensive: “At the very least, a silver teapot, teakettle and canisters, together with porcelain tea-bowls or cups, were required; and many tea equipages included a milk jug, a hot-water pot or urn, a slop basin, a sugar bowl and tongs, a tray, teaspoons, plates and other items. Canisters were often fitted with a lock to prevent servants stealing their contents, and the kettle was usually made of silver, as it was used in front of guests.”
Only after about 1800-20 — by which date tea had slipped down the social scale — were the kettle and canisters confined to the kitchen, where tea was now generally prepared. For much of the 18th century handleless tea-bowls of the type imported from China were preferred to handled-cups.
Satires occasionally show tea being drunk from the saucer, but this was not done in polite company. Guests indicated that they had drunk enough by turning the cup over or placing a teaspoon in the bowl. Until this was done it was considered bad manners to refuse more tea when offered.
Tea rose in popularity, as well, in that it could be served socially without breaking rules of decorum around food. It also meant that people of different social levels could meet and converse which spread values of refinement, politeness, and sociability. This spread around Britain and into the colonies.
Types of Tea
Both green and black teas were consumed in Britain, with black teas being cheaper. In the 1840s when tea was successfully cultivated in India, all British teas came from China. The most popular black tea was behea, with pekoe, souchong and congou also being imported. Green teas were gunpowder, imperial hyson, and singlo. The black teas often were more popular because they were stronger and blended better with milk. Milk had also been previously used in coffee and chocolate to cut the bitter taste and may have made the jump from those treats to tea around 1720.
It was around 1830 that blends such as Earl Grey began showing up in the British market, and obviously have continued into today.
Food and Tea
Culturally the largest meal of the day, dinner, was eaten around 2pm in Britain in the 18th century. As more lighting capabilities such as gas lanterns became more popular and better, dinners moved to later in the day. To bridge the gap from breakfast to dinner, tea was consumed with bread and butter or toast, and sometimes cakes or biscuits. For the poor bread and butter was a staple, enhanced, if they were lucky, by bacon or cheese.
“The British institution of afternoon ‘high tea’ – a meal in its own right, in which has-, cheese- or egg-sandwiches are served together with tea and biscuits and cake – seems to derive from both dining practices. This was firmly established by 1840, and the tradition survives today.” ~Hilary Young
Tea and Literature
We often view the regency period, that of the early 1800s, as the time in which much of our romance novels and stories developed out of. Especially from female authors. What is neat about tea and the culture of the time is that it went hand in hand with some of the plot points in these stories. Jane Austen frequently wrote about tea in her novels and more importantly the culture of taking tea was huge in the development of women in cultural movements.
While we view Austen’s stories or the Bronte’s as steaming with romance and love, a lot of the stories were filled with social commentary and analysis of women’s lives and places in what was becoming a quickly changing society.