top of page
  • Writer's pictureJulia Warren

Sipping Through Time: A Journey into the Rich History of Tea

Happy International Tea Day! Today, as we celebrate the soothing elixir that has warmed hearts and sparked conversations for centuries, let's take a thirst-quenching journey back in time to explore the captivating history of tea...

Woman Taking Tea by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin
"As they sat around the tea-table, with a low dish of fine strawberries, floating in a rich cream before them, in the elegance of female friendship, which is said to have a kind of refining influence..."

From "Pamela" by Samuel Richardson (1740)

Origins in Ancient China

Legend has it that the story of tea begins in ancient China around 2737 BCE. According to popular folklore, Emperor Shen Nong, a skilled herbalist and ruler, discovered tea when tea leaves accidentally fell into a pot of boiling water he was preparing. Intrigued by the aroma and taste, he found this infusion to be not only delicious but also invigorating.

Tea Spreads its Leaves

Tea's popularity grew, and it became a staple in Chinese culture. By the 6th century, tea had found its way to Japan, carried by Buddhist monks who incorporated the beverage into their meditation practices. In Japan, the traditional tea ceremony, a ritualistic preparation and consumption of matcha tea, became a cultural phenomenon.

Making Usu-cha - from the series A Tea Ceremony Periwinkle, woodblock print byToshikata Mizuno

The Silk Road Connection

Tea didn’t stop in East Asia. Along the historic Silk Road, the ancient trade routes that connected East and West, tea traveled to the Middle East and beyond. As tea spread across continents, it adapted to different cultures and traditions, evolving into various forms of preparation and consumption.

It is tempting to imagine Marco Polo enjoying a cup now and then as he made his way back to Venice along the Silk Road…

The British Tea Obsession

Tea truly captured the hearts of the West during the 17th century; introduced by Catherine of Braganza, wife to Charles II, it soon became a fashionable and exotic beverage in Britain. Initially a luxury enjoyed by the aristocracy, it quickly became a staple for people from all walks of life. The British East India Company played a pivotal role in the global tea trade, importing vast quantities of tea leaves from China and later establishing plantations in India.

Catherine of Braganza by Peter Lely
"I must not here omit the description of the little grotto that was made for my wife within the garden walls. The shell was lined with looking-glass, which surrounded a basin for fountains, that threw water in such a manner as to imitate a delicate rain... Here she would sit, and fancy herself by the side of a fountain, with the pretty fellow of a Cupid who stands by it."

From "The Spectator" by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele 

Tea gardens became popular during the 18th century - they enabled men and women to mingle in public with every appearance of respectability, while enjoying their tea outdoors to the accompaniment of entertainers and musicians. Tea gardens added extra kudos to tea drinking for the fashion conscious.

Meanwhile, at the palace, Queen Anne was so fond of drinking tea that she introduced a large bell-shaped silver teapot to replace the traditional, but small, Chinese teapots. The earliest tea service dates from her reign; tea cups during this period still tended to be without handles, although chocolate drinking cups had had handles since the 17th century.

"They tell me, Sir, that some of our community are to be here from Falmouth and beyond, and others from Connecticut and Rhode Island, protesting against your rule. They call it the Boston Tea-Party; but we are like to have a more effectual one here."

Mistress Hibbins, from Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel "The Scarlet Letter," 1850.

The Boston Tea Party 

Tea played an unexpected role in the history of the United States during the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Protestors, furious about taxation without representation, dumped chests of tea into the Boston Harbor, an iconic event that contributed to the tensions leading to the American Revolution.

Shift in Dining Habits:

In the early 18th century, there was a shift in dining habits. The main meal of the day, which was traditionally served around noon, became lighter. As a result, people started experiencing a "sinking feeling" in the afternoon, craving a little something to tide them over until dinner. This led to the custom of enjoying a light refreshment in the afternoon.

"Tea was made downstairs, biscuits and baked apples and wine before she came away: amazing luck in some of her throws: and she inquired a great deal about you, how you were amused, and who were your partners."

From "Mansfield Park" by Jane Austen (1814)

Anna, Duchess of Bedford: A Pioneering Influence:

The tradition of afternoon tea, as we know it today, is often credited to Anna, the Duchess of Bedford. In the early 1840s, she began requesting a tray of tea, bread, butter, and cake to be brought to her room in the late afternoon. This practice of having a light meal in the afternoon soon became a habit, and she began inviting friends to join her. The concept quickly gained popularity among the upper class.

Anna, Duchess of Bedford

Spread of Afternoon Tea Culture:

The custom of afternoon tea spread beyond the aristocracy and became a fashionable social event in both England and eventually other parts of the British Empire. By the late 19th century, tea rooms and tea gardens were established, offering a more public and social setting for afternoon tea.

“Rich people are delightful to look at, but as tea companions they are horribly dull."

Oscar Wilde (The Portrait of Dorian Gray)

Afternoon Tea Etiquette:

Afternoon tea was typically served from 4:00 to 6:00 pm. It consisted of a variety of teas, sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, and sweet pastries. The setting was elegant, with fine china, silverware, and linen. Afternoon tea became an opportunity for socializing and networking, and it played a significant role in Victorian society.

While the full tradition of afternoon tea as a formal social event came a bit later, the 18th century set the stage for the cultural significance of tea in England, making it a fashionable and refined beverage enjoyed by the upper classes. The 19th century would see the evolution of this tradition into the delightful afternoon tea we recognize today.

In the conservatory, by James Tissot, CC BY-SA 3.0

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”

“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

“Nobody asked your opinion,” said Alice.

“Who’s making personal remarks now?” the Hatter asked triumphantly.

Alice did not quite know what to say to this: so she helped herself to some tea and bread-and-butter, and then turned to the Dormouse, and repeated her question. “Why did they live at the bottom of a well?”

The Dormouse again took a minute or two to think about it, and then said, “It was a treacle-well.”

From "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", by Lewis Carroll (1865).

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party, by John Tenniel

4 views0 comments


bottom of page