When you picture a quintessentially English afternoon tea, you most likely see a three-tier cake stand bedecked with crust-less sandwich-fingers and dainty, opulent cakes, crowned, perhaps with pastel coloured macaroons. Pretty (and tasty!) though the vision is, this is the 21st century Hotels’ rather decadent fusion of many traditions of tea taking. It might be what a tea party looks like today, but it was not how it looked in the past.
What is a Tea Party?
In England, afternoon tea parties underpinned the social interactions of the elite and rich middling classes in the 17th Century. They continued to take place in England until about the 1970s.
The early tea parties provided an arena within the private home at which both guest and hostess could perform their polite behaviour. These parties took place inside the home – polite or respectable women did not go out to public places to eat or socialise (If they did, they would always be escorted by a husband or brother.) The presence of the tea signified that polite sociability would be taking place. The hostess would have a chance to show off her exotically fashionable tea cups and saucers from China, silver tea pots and spoons.
Both the hostess and her guests (both men and women) were participating in a ritual in which they would demonstrate how skilful they were in perform well-mannered and ‘polite’ behaviour. This custom of tea drinking had initially been adopted by the rich landowning elite classes but it was the urban newly rich urban middling classes who drove the demand for tea, the aspirational drink with which they could demonstrate their sophisticated polite behaviour.
Both hostess and guests had an opportunity to wear their finest dresses, to see and be seen by others. The purpose was to socialise and talk. The Chinese tea had to be present – it signified the polite behaviour. Simple small morsels of food were provided, such as bread and butter or Savoy biscuits, often in addition to coffee and wines.
Unlike dinner (or even lunch) the tea party was not a meal of sustenance, with guests being seated at a formal dining table with an array of eating implements.. The tea party was a social event at which simple, mainly bread-related foods were served, all of which could be eaten with the fingers without making a mess. There was no formality with regards to table settings.
As a social event, the afternoon tea party has endured into the 21st Century – Queen Elizabeth still holds garden (tea) parties at Buckingham Palace each summer. Weddings receptions and Christening parties often take the form of a tea party with champagne, tea and light finger foods being served.
It is worth thinking about the use of language towards an understanding of English tea drinking. The early social events were tea parties and this was often shortened to ‘tea’. It was not necessary to prefix this with the word ‘afternoon’ because there was an unwritten rule that socialising took place after noon.
Certain meals have also appeared that use the word tea to describe them.