Friday, 10 June 2011

Tea-Drinking through the Centuries: a Romance Author's Guide

I love tea.

I love the ceremony of tea. My favorite birthday present of the last five years was a gorgeous flower printed Cath Kidston tea set, complete with a tiered cake stand. I like to bake. I'm a dab hand with a fruit scone and a positive marvel with a victoria sponge. And cake plus tea plus a pretty tea set equates to afternoon tea heaven. Tea is an integral part of the culture I was born to and the culture to which most Regency heroes and heroines belong.

However, on occasion I've noticed that in the historical romances there is a tendency for heroes and heroines to drink coffee. Indubitably, coffee and chocolate were drunk in the Regency era and yet, I mourn the absence of tea. Tea after all, is a substance as integral to the British psyche as incessant rain. I recently realised that in my stories tea features large. Tea drinking binds friendships, enables gossip and restores the spirits. And yet, I find myself wondering whether I have got it right - or are my characters transgressing all sorts of complex rules of etiquette and anachronisms. Subsequent investigation informs the following guide to habits of tea-drinking through the centuries:

17th Century Tea-Drinking

"And afterwards did send for a Cupp of Tee (a China drink) of which I never drank before".
Samuel Pepys, 25 September 1660

In the 1660s, the Restoration brought England a constitutional monarchy and what was to become its greatest national treasure: tea. Charles II married tea-drinker Catherine of Braganza in 1662 and thereafter tea mania swept the nation. By 1708, 240 pounds of tea were being imported annually.

Tea for her:For your 17th Century heroine, tea was a boudoir activity, to be enjoyed served in a china tea set kept in a closet in my lady's bedchamber when in a state of undress. The first tea sets were imported from China along with the tea and made of delicate porcelain with handle-less cups like the one below. Tea for ladies was bought in loose leaf form from the coffee houses and brewed at home.

Tea for him:For your 17th Century hero, tea was a coffeehouse activity to be enjoyed whilst talking business. In 1657 Thomas Garway started advertising tea in his coffeehouse on Exchange Alley touting its virtues at "making the body active and lusty", and "preserving perfect health until extreme old age." Unfortunately for your hero, the gentleman's cup of tea was considerably less fresh than the ladies'. In the 17th century tea was taxed in liquid form - so the whole day's tea was brewed in the morning, taxed by the excise officer and then kept in a barrel and reheated as necessary. Ugh! It wasn't until 1689 when tea became taxed in its loose leaf form that it became a rather tastier drink.

Two types of tea were likely to be drunk, bohea (black tea) and hyson (green tea), with both offered on the tea table. Your 17th century protagonists may also add milk to their tea, as by the late 17th century this trend had reached England from her continental neighbours in Holland and France. Writing in the mid-17th century, Madame de Sévigné tells us: "Madame de la Sablière took her tea with milk, as she told me the other day, because it was to her taste."

18th Century Tea-Drinking
An exotic import from China, tea was extremely expensive and became more so with the imposition of taxes. It was therefore strongly associated with the wealthy upper classes. This did not however dim the spread of its popularity.

By the mid-18th Century tea sets looked much more like they do now, with globular tea pots and porcelain cups with handles. The 1735 tea set below is one of the earliest complete sets in existence from this period.

The tea canisters above are engraved with initials G., B. and S. for Green tea, Bohea (black) tea and sugar respectively. There is also a tea chest, which the lady of the house would have kept under lock and key to protect so valuable a commodity.

Due to the high rate of taxation, tea smuggling was big business. Your 18th century heroine might therefore have sourced her tea on the black market before drinking it from the new English style porcelain cups with handles. Tea was served either after dinner, or to callers.

Your heroine would unlock the tea chest and then mix her leaves to create her own blend (or use a pre-blended mix). The pot would be warmed with hot water, which was then discarded and then the tea leaves and hot water added. Tea would be poured into individual cups through a strainer. If taking milk, this would generally be added to the cup before the tea was poured. Sugar, imported from Jamaica, was often added to sweeten the bitter flavor.

Tea might be accompanied by crumpets or scra of bread and butter, but the full blown afternoon tea for which England has become famous was not invented until the following century.

One lovely 18th Century development was the creation of the Tea Garden, as visited by Handel and Mozart. Here, tea could be consumed as visitors strolled around lawns and down shady walks, viewing ponds and statues. Between 16th and 19th centuries more than 200 tea and pleasure gardens sprang up in London alone.

Tea drinking in the 18th century was not, however, without its controversies. Its supporters described it as a cure-all, its detractors as injurious to the health and many felt that the poor should be kept from drinking it at all. In 1748 John Wesley, the Methodist preacher argued for complete abstinence from tea claiming it caused 'numberless disorders, particularly those of a nervous kind.' Philanthropist Jonas Hanway claimed that working class mother's would neglect and starve their children, to spend their money and their time on drinking tea.

One sinister aspect of tea-drinking in the 18th Century was the widespread adulteration of tea, with added ingredients such as sheep dung and hawthorne used to pad it out and poisonous dyes like copper carbonate and lead chromate used to turn it green. The use of dangerous dyes like this in green tea is one of the reasons black tea became more popular.

19th Century (Regency and Victorian) Tea-Drinking
Ironically, in the 19th Century John Wesley's methodists brought tea to the forefront of the temperance movement and teashops and tearooms began to open across the country. By the 19th Century, tea drinking was habitual throughout all the classes, drunk at breakfast and throughout the day.

Prior to the 19th century, people typically ate dinner fairly early at five or six o'clock. By the early 19th century however, upper class dining habits were changing. People would be likely to have a substantial breakfast and at 1pm, a light luncheon but dinner was not served until seven or 8pm. In 1841 Anna Maria, the Duchess of Bedford, therefore started a trend for tea to be served with moderate sustenance at around 4 or 5pm: the afternoon tea was born. As with her 17th century forebears, this was a social occasion - guests would be invited on the expectation they would depart by 7pm, in time for the fashionable promenade around Hyde Park. Upper class afternoon tea was a light repast, with delicate sandwiches, scones and dainty cakes served prettily presented on china plates. Despite the relative informality, ritual and etiquette were paramount. The hostess would pour and any gentlemen present would hand round the cups.

Working class eating habits were also changing as the nation became more industrialised. In agricultural society lunch had been the main meal of the day but this was inconvenient for people working in factories. For the middle and working classes, high tea became the order of the day, with tea served at 5pm or 6pm along with hearty food.

For the regency romance author tea therefore can be a subtle indicator of social status. The fastidious upper class mama in law dropping round to pay a call on her son's proposed fiancee can note a table weighed down with pie, tarts, jellies, meat and cheese and comprehend immediately that her prospective daughter in law springs from the middle classes and snobbishly decide that her family are undesirable 'cits' or 'mushrooms'.

Or perhaps to illustrate extreme vulgarity, an author can depict a gentlemen tipping his spilled tea from his saucer back into his cup - or worse still, drinking it from the saucer itself!

Not a tea drinker?

Then try this great post about chocolate from those clever word wenches.

Mad about Tea? For further reading see:
All you need to know about Tea, by the UK Tea Council
Beautiful Rococo Tea Equipage
Georgian Index on Tea
Tea and Pleasure Gardens in London


Andrea said...

I've never liked drinking tea, but was told a few years ago that if you ate or drank something ten times you would eventually like/accept it.

I bravely bought myself a nice teacup (to ease the experiene) and over a few days drank ten cups of tea, and lo and behold, I can now happily drink tea.


Meg McNulty said...

Funnily I enough I think I did the same with coffee - taught myself to like it, now can't start the day without it. But after mid morning, it's tea all the way.

tea cozy said...

loving your blog, keep it up, as always!