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The History & Etiquette of Afternoon Tea

There are many ideas about tea etiquette and the when and how tea was first made popular in England. Charles II grew up in exile at The Hague and thus was exposed to the custom of drinking tea. He married Catharine of Braganza who was Portuguese and who also enjoyed tea. Catharine had grown up drinking tea in Portugal - the preferred beverage of the time. It is said that when she arrived in England to marry Charles II in 1662, she brought with her a casket of tea. She became known as England's first tea-drinking queen.

In England, she invited her friends into her bedroom chamber to share tea with her. In the 18th century, it was custom for highborn ladies to receive callers with their morning tea while still lounging in bed. Queen Anne drank tea so regularly that she substituted a large bell-shaped silver teapot for the tiny Chinese teapots. The earliest tea service dates from her reign.

Coffee For Men, Tea For Ladies

Coffeehouses were popular in the 18th century. Women were forbidden to enter them. In 1675 members of the government persuaded Charles II to suppress them as centers of sedition. The men were so outraged that the king canceled the proclamation. Coffeehouses were also called “penny universities,” in reference to the conversation they bred and the penny admittance fee.

Tea Gardens

During the 18th century, tea gardens became popular. The whole idea of the garden was for ladies and gentlemen to take their tea together outdoors surrounded by entertainers. They attracted everybody including Mozart and Handel. The tea gardens made tea all the more fashionable to drink, plus they were important places for men and women to meet freely.

While drinking tea as a fashionable event is credited to Catharine of Braganza, the actual taking of tea in the afternoon developed into a new social event some time in the late 1830s and early 1840s. Jane Austen hints of afternoon tea as early as 1804 in an unfinished novel.

Afternoon Tea Tradition

It is said that the afternoon tea tradition was established by Anne, Duchess of Bedford. She requested that light sandwiches be brought to her in the late afternoon because she had a “sinking feeling” during that time because of the long gap between meals. She began to invite others to join her and thus became the tradition.

Proper Etiquette For a Tea Party

Just like the royalty and upper class did in the original tea parties, it is important to use proper etiquette when attending a formal tea party. Here are a few tea party etiquette tips to remember:

  • After sitting down, put your purse on your lap or behind you against the chair back.
  • Unfold napkin and make sure to place it on your lap. If you must leave the table temporarily, place the napkin on your chair. Never blot or wipe your lipstick with a linen or cloth napkin. Lipstick stains rarely come out in the wash.
  • Never, ever use your napkin as a handkerchief. Please excuse yourself from the table and go to the ladies' room. The hostess will signal the end of the tea Eva Gonzales - afternoon tea by picking up her napkin. Everyone else will then pick up their napkin by the center and loosely lay to the left of their plate.
  • Sugar is placed in your teacup first, then thinly sliced lemon. If you like to have milk in your tea, add it after the tea is poured. At one time it was traditional to pour the milk into the cup before the tea. This was done to prevent the glaze on delicate teacups from cracking. We do not have that problem today, so add the milk after the tea so that you can judge how much to use based on the color change. Never use milk and lemon together.
  • Hold the handle of the teacup using your thumb and your first one or two fingers. There is no need to stick out your pinky; this is an exaggeration of how people sometimes tilt their pinky upwards to balance the cup. Do not loop your fingers through the teacup handle or cradle the side or bottom of the cup with your hands. A guest should look into the teacup when drinking, never over it.
  • When stirring your tea, be careful not to clink your spoon against the cup. Gently swish the spoon back and forth without touching the sides of the cup. When through stirring, remove the spoon and place it on the saucer behind the teacup and to the right of the handle. Of course, never take a drink of your tea without removing the spoon first, and please never, ever sip from the spoon.
  • Take small, quiet sips of your tea. Do not blow on the tea if it is too hot.
  • When you are not drinking tea, place the cup on the saucer. If seated at a Hilda Fearon afternoon tea table, never pick up the saucer. If standing, you may lift the saucer with the cup.
  • It is fine to eat most of the foods with your fingers, taking small bites; however, use a fork when trying to eat messy foods. Scones are a traditional part of proper tea. Split the scone with a knife. Since the knife is now used, either place it on your knife rest or lay it gently on the side of your plate. Jam or curds is usually placed on the scone and then top off with a dollop of clotted cream. Simply spoon a small amount of jam or curds onto your plate, as well as some of the clotted cream. Spread the jam, curds, and clotted cream onto your scone. Never use the serving spoon for this task.
  • Be sure to take small bites, since attending a tea is a social occasion and you will want to participate in the conversation without always having a full mouth. Chew and swallow completely before taking a drink of tea, since it is hot and is not meant to wash the food down.
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