Origin of Afternoon Tea

Origin of Afternoon Tea - a three-tier platter

August 8, 2018

So why am I so obsessed with afternoon tea every time I’m in England? Maybe because I get to pretend to be royalty, albeit only for a moment? Or just to get a taste of royalty experience? Whatever the reason might be, the link between royalty and afternoon tea is actually tied to the origin of afternoon tea.

So what is the origin of afternoon tea?

The story goes something like this. The 7th Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Stanhope, got hungry in the afternoon, long before a typically late dinner was served. So, she ordered some snacks like cakes, biscuits, and pastries from the kitchen. She would then enjoy the tea and food in her dressing room.

After her first meal she fell in love with the idea of some tea and snacks between lunch and dinner. She also began to socialize this routine and started inviting her friends to join her. Very quickly, Queen Victoria heard the news of this tea event and also seemed to like the idea.

While it was clear that the origin of afternoon tea came from Anna, how and when the custom became popularized and formalized as afternoon tea was not as evident. But the general timeline is that “afternoon tea” became a formal event by the mid to late 19th century.

In the 1840’s, this custom was almost exclusively enjoyed by royalties. By the 1880’s, this daily routine soon became a fashionable social event among the upper-class women. They would dress in their formal long gowns and wear their hats and gloves for this indulgence.

This customary small meal of tea and snacks soon spread throughout Britian and became more formally known as “afternoon tea”. However, in the infancy of afternoon tea, it was still an exclusive experience only for the upper-class elites. Butlers served teas in sterling silver teapots and fine china glassware. The presentation was often elegant and sophisticated.

Today, there are still a few places in London where you can enjoy a modest replication of the exclusive occasion. One of my favorite places to indulge in this experience whenever I’m in London is the Orangery in the Kensington Gardens, next to the Kensington Palace.

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