Fancy a Cuppa? Crafting British Identity at Afternoon Tea
Lyric Lott, WPAMC ’24
From the bustling streets of London to the misty villages of the Lake District, it is hard to overlook the ubiquitous presence of afternoon tea as a traveler in England. Afternoon tea is known throughout the world as a British pastime, an oft-upheld and celebrated custom in the eyes of Brits and anglophiles alike. It’s so ubiquitous, in fact, that 244 National Trust sites around the United Kingdom serve it in their cafes.1 But what exactly is afternoon tea, and how has it come to represent quintessential British life to so many, both within and outside the isles?
Frequently misconstrued and misunderstood, afternoon tea is actually an umbrella term for several different tea ceremonies. The iconic British tea ceremony that most think of when hearing “afternoon tea” consists of multiple courses of tea sandwiches, scones, and pastries, often served on a multi-level tea tray. Though often referred to as “high tea,” in wider culture, this ceremony instead sometimes takes the name “low tea,” as it is often consumed in low-slung armchairs.
Many tea lovers today credit the adoption of afternoon tea to the 7th Duchess of Bedford, who, according to legend, began to take a small meal of cake and tea between midday and evening meals to ease her hunger.2 The real reason, however, likely has more to do with the increasing import of tea from China during the eighteenth century and the fashion of having later dinners after the advent of gas lighting than it does with the proclivities of a Victorian duchess. Whatever the reason, tea rose to prominence in nineteenth-century Britain, and along with it the ceremony of afternoon tea. Before long, the drink had gained the title of “national beverage” by its drinkers, a declaration of the inherent British-ness of the act of taking tea.3
But is the tradition of afternoon tea really even that British at all? Though often upheld as the pinnacle of genteel British culture, most aspects of afternoon tea hold roots that are far removed from the British Isles, or even the European mainland. Even early adopters of afternoon tea drinking had their doubts – some worried about the optics of building a national identity around a foreign, imported good, an anxiety that led to a decades-long search for a British-controlled tea trade.4 Tea, as its consumers knew, came from China, a place as far removed from Britain as afternoon tea lovers could imagine.
Yet in truth it wasn’t tea specifically that presented a threat to British national identity in the nineteenth century, but rather the entirety of the afternoon tea experience. In the parlors of reclining British socialites, hot tea was poured into imported porcelain teacups from the ports of China, sweetened with Barbadian sugar, and stirred with spoons made of South American silver. These wares rested atop a glossy wooden table made from Jamaican mahogany, covered with a fine tablecloth spun from cotton gathered with enslaved hands in the southern United States.5 In essence, the afternoon tea table setting drew a map of the nineteenth century’s imperial world.
Perhaps, therefore, the most British aspect of afternoon tea is its far-flung components, elements brought together by a country zealously dedicated to the expansion of its global empire. Today, afternoon tea continues to be enjoyed around the world as a celebration of British culture. But it may stand to ask: what aspect of this culture are we celebrating?
1 Sarah Kuta, “One Woman’s Quest to Eat 244 Scones Across U.K. Is Now Complete,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 7, 2023, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/british-woman-eats-244-scones-national-trust-sites-180981762/.
2 Vicky Straker, Afternoon Tea: A History and Guide to the Great Edwardian Tradition (Stroud, UK: Amberley Publishing Limited, 2015), 1.
3 Julie E. Fromer, “‘Deeply Indebted to the Tea-Plant’: Representations of English National Identity in Victorian Histories of Tea,” Victorian Literature and Culture 36, no. 2 (2008): 531.
4 Fromer, “‘Deeply Indebted to the Tea-Plant,’” 532.
5 Jennifer Anderson, Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 30.