12 March 2013
Tea and Social Class Boundaries in 19th Century England
How did tea rituals, customs, and etiquette reinforce social class boundaries in 19th century England? This question is relevant, in that it asks us to reflect on how simple commodities such as tea can distinguish social differences between classes, both past and present; it also allows us to ponder on how tea was popularized into the daily-consumed beverage it is to this day with people of all class backgrounds. In her book A Necessary Luxury: Tea in Victorian England (2008), Julie E. Fromer discusses how in 19th century England “new identification categories and new hierarchies of status developed along lines stemming from consumption habits, creating moral guidelines based on what and when and how one consumed the commodities of English culture,” (Fromer, 6). After discussing some origins of certain tea rituals such as low and high tea, I will elaborate on how those rituals influenced and reinforced social boundaries between the lower and upper classes; furthermore, I will analyze how certain tea customs and etiquette shaped the practice of tea-time between the lower and upper classes. There are variations on the origin of the afternoon tea ritual. “The accepted tea legend always attributes the ‘invention’ of afternoon tea to Anna Maria, wife of the 7th Duke of Bedford, who wrote to her brother-in-law in a letter sent from Windsor Castle in 1841: ‘I forgot to name my old friend Prince Esterhazy who drank tea with me the other evening at 5 o’clock, or rather was my guest amongst eight ladies at the Castle,” (Pettigrew, 102). While tea was already a luxurious beverage at the time, when to drink tea during the day became a national cultural custom. “The Duchess is said to have experienced ‘a sinking feeling’ in the middle of the afternoon, because of the long gap between luncheon and dinner and so asked her maid to bring her all the necessary tea things and something to eat – probably the traditional bread and butter – to her private room in order that she might stave off her hunger pangs,” (Pettigrew, 102). Upper-class citizens caught on with this trend, participating in a ritual that would define a nation. Upper-class families would participate in low tea at a good hour between lunch and dinner. “Manners of Modern Society, written in 1872, described the way in which afternoon tea had gradually become an established event. ‘Little Teas’, it explained, ‘take place in the afternoon’ and were so-called because of the small amount of food served and the neatness and elegance of the meal,” (Pettigrew, 104). Consuming food with tea during the day between meals might have speculated the English people for growing accustomed to eating too much during the day, but according to Marie Bayard in her Hints on Etiquette (1884), afternoon tea was “not supposed to be a substantial meal, merely a light refreshment.” She adds, “Cakes, thin bread and butter, and hot buttered scones, muffins, or toast are all the accompaniments strictly necessary.”
The upper classes during the 19th century were known more for drinking more expensive and refined teas, such as those from China, Ceylon, or Assam. The wealthy and privileged groups of 19th century England took pride in their customs; with the custom of tea, they spared no expense in staying true to their idealized rituals. Low tea was a daily practice for the upper classes. Martha Chute created a series of watercolor paintings that portrayed daily life at the Vyne in Hampshire in the mid-nineteenth century. This particular 1860 watercolor (Pettigrew, 99) depicts a dining room table prepared for breakfast with the tea urn in the middle of the table and the tea cups laid out. The painting’s setting takes place in a very upper class room with portraits of upper class citizens and scenery artwork hung all around the room. Published in 1807, Thomas Rowlandson’s Miseries Personal...