The British obsession with tea is said to have begun in 1662 when Catherine of Braganza married King Charles II and brought the luxury beverage with her as part of her dowry. Although tea was not unknown in Britain before this time (the diaries of Samuel Pepys first mention “tee” on September 25, 1660,) its popularity was assured when the new Queen served out the liquid in her fine porcelain tea accoutrements.
Soon tea drinking became a habit for all who could afford the expensive import.
At first tea could only be drunk publicly in the male-only coffee shops, but Thomas Twining opened his first shop in 1706, allowing women the chance to purchase tea. Early tea cups had no handles, the expensive product was kept in locked tea caddies, and sugar was purchased in cones or loaves, from which lumps were broken off for serving.
Tea drove innovations such as faster merchant ships (clipper ships which clipped days off the transport time from China to England). The demand for heat-resistant cups and serving implements benefited porcelain and silver manufacturers. The “teaspoon” was first mentioned in an advertisement in 1686.
Over time, tea, the taxes on tea, the smuggling of tea to bypass those taxes, and the trade deficits caused by satisfying the growing desire for the refreshing liquid would bring about wars, imperial oppression, and the rise of the “great milk debate” which rages to this very day.
More relevant to the history behind the Steam Geared and Hotel Belladonna stories, the advent of afternoon tea began as a refreshment served in private chambers by Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, who served as Lady of the Bedchamber for Queen Victoria. In the 1840’s, when luncheon was served at noon and dinner not until 8 pm, the Duchess developed a “sinking feeling” in the late afternoon, and requested tea and some small comestibles be served around 4 pm. She made a habit of this, and began inviting other ladies to join her, including the Queen herself. The routine became a fad, then a custom, and then a tradition, where ladies might meet to catch up on recent news, discuss current events, and chat about the latest fashions.
Afternoon tea, or low tea as it was called because it was laid out on low tables, became more of a social event than a meal. The private nature of the event made it possible for women to entertain company at home, without their husbands. This freedom contributed to discussions of women’s rights, suffrage, and more than a little gossip.
Makers of feminine attire saw an opportunity to cater to these more intimate, indoor meetings, and made clothing to accommodate. Known as “tea gowns,” they featured less boning and underpinnings than the typical corseted and bustled silhouette of the era, and used light, flowing fabrics.
Whether the word “tea” is used to mean a beverage, a meal, or an occasion, it has made its mark on the lives of many throughout history.