Is there a scene more typical of English life than that of a tea set? Charlotte Bronte captured that archetypal tableau in her 1853 novel Vilette when she describes an English tea and suggests the complex negotiation of social identity that revolved around the ritual of the tea table.

“How pleasant it was in its air of perfect domestic comfort! How warm in its amber lamp-light and vermilion fire-flush! To render the picture perfect, tea stood ready on the table—an English tea, whereof the whole shining service glanced at me familiarly; from the solid silver urn, of antique pattern, and the massive pot of the same metal, to the thin porcelain cups, dark with purple and gilding.”

Bronte’s setting illuminates tea’s role in defining social order within the larger category of English national identity. The tea table symbolized the altar whereon the rituals of both shared community and class distinctions were celebrated. And woe be unto any woman or man who did not understand the intricacies of those rituals which had been finely-honed since the arrival of tea on that island in the mid-1600s.

Like sugar, coffee, cocoa and other imported luxury foods, tea originally signified status and wealth in English society. First too expensive for all except the wealthiest households, increasing imports throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contributed to a dramatic availability of tea to more and more families. Whereas in 1675, total consumption nationally was only 4700 pounds, that number had risen to 187 million pounds by 1877. That was enough leaf to steep 80 million cups of tea each day! 

By the close of Victoria’s reign, tea had become immensely popular as a beverage brewed and consumed within the private realm of the home and the resonances of English life were added to the originally foreign, exotic image of tea. What was once considered a luxury had become a necessity in the British home and an icon of national domesticity. 

This uniquely British penchant toward tea was acted out in front of me twenty years ago when a British couple visited my tea house. The travelers were quite disappointed with my exhaustive list of premium loose teas. They had been in the colonies for nearly a month and their supersize box of PG Tips had run out the day before. They didn’t know how they would survive the remaining three days before boarding a plane back to London—and the familiar tea aisles of Tesco.

Afternoon tea at the Swan Hotel, Lavenham. From The Great Tea Rooms of Britain by Bruce Richardson.

Fortunately, a New York distributor had given me a box of PG Tips the previous week and I had tucked it away in the back of my pantry.  After assuring my guests that I could remedy their dilemma, I returned to the table with a piping hot teapot filled with over-steeped English tea bags. To them, it was mother’s milk.

I presented my new friends with the entire box of tea bags, which would carry them through the remainder of their journey. They left with terrific smiles on their faces for they had found a bit of necessary British luxury in the state of Kentucky.

This article first appeared in the March 2016 edition of TeaTime magazine.

Bruce Richardson is the author of The Great Tea Rooms of Britain, Benjamin Press.

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