History of the Victorian Afternoon Tea Parties

by Karen

Tea drinking has been around for some time now, but it wasn’t until the Victorian era that it became a specific occasion. Women and men would dress up and gather in their living rooms to enjoy a cup of tea with an assortment of finger foods and cakes during the afternoon.

Etiquette During Tea Parties

Etiquette During Tea Parties

Using proper etiquette at formal tea parties is important. Here’s what you must do:

Etiquette for Eating

  • Place your bag on your lap after you sit down. You can also put it against the back of the chair.
  • Unfold the napkin and place it on your lap. If you have to leave the table, however momentarily, keep it on your chair.
  • Don’t use your napkin as a handkerchief. Excuse yourself and go to the ladies’ room instead.
  • Tea parties were considered social occasions, hence, you must take small bites to avoid participating in conversations with your mouth full.
  • You could eat finger foods with your fingers, but if the food is messy, you are encouraged to use a fork or spoon.

Etiquette for Drinking Tea

etiquette for tea parties

  • Place the sugar in your teacup, then follow it up with a thinly-sliced lemon and pour the tea. If you’re using milk, skip the lemon slices as they can cause your milk to curdle and go bad.
  • When stirring your tea with a spoon, make sure not to tap it against the sides of the teacup. When you’re done, you must rest your spoon at a 15-degree angle on the saucer, or more specifically, behind the teacup and to the right of the handle.
  • Use your thumb and first one or two fingers to hold the cup. While some people were used to sticking out their pinky finger for balance when drinking, etiquette did not call for it. Hence, it was best to avoid it.
  • Look into the teacup, not over it, when drinking tea.
  • When you are not drinking tea but are seated, you can place the cup on the saucer. When you’re standing, lift the saucer for convenience.

Something to note: Confused about when to add milk to your milk tea? We got you. Previously, pouring the milk before tea was a necessity as it could prevent the glaze on delicate teacups from cracking. This is not an issue with modern tea cups so you can add milk after tea to get your desired color.

How Tea Parties Started

How Tea Parties Started

How did tea parties begin? It would seem that we have urbanization and industrialization to thank for this ceremonial social affair. Together, these changes pushed the evening meal later and later, which meant there was a bigger gap between lunch and dinner.

In fact, at that time, most people had only two main meals: breakfast and dinner. Since dinner was served fashionably late (around 8-9 p.m.), there was a long break in between.

Anne Maria Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford and a lady-in-waiting for Queen Victoria, found the change disconcerting. According to her, the long gap between meals gave her a “sinking feeling.”

She thus requested that a tray of tea, along with bread, butter, and cake be brought to her room in the late afternoon. It quickly became a habit of hers that spread as she began to invite her friends and acquaintances to join her, eventually turning it into a tradition.

Tea Drinking and Taxes

Despite the charming tale of Anne Maria, the 1650s and 1660s were when tea drinking really started in England.

Tea was exported from China and it came with heavy taxes. This meant it was only accessible to the upper classes and was initially only consumed in public coffeehouses.  

The idea is attributed to King Charles II and his wife Catharine of Braganza. Catherine of Braganza was a Portuguese who grew up drinking tea which was the preferred beverage at the time. It is said that she even brought a casket of tea when she arrived in England to marry Charles II in 1662.

By the 18th century, the East India Company emerged and gained a monopoly over the tea trade which had a 119% import tax at the time. The costs, however, dropped during the 18th century, removing the need for the black market. Since the company imported enough tea to make about 28 million cups, the populace was encouraged to replace their gin with tea as a more acceptable breakfast drink.

But that’s not even half of it! Many considered —

Tea Drinking as a Radical Feminist Act

Women weren’t allowed in coffeehouses, but tea was about to change that.

The making of tea was considered a feminine affair, giving women the opportunity to socialize with men and women who were not from their immediate families. The freedom extended to clothes as well so women naturally wore light, flowing fabrics with optional corsets while entertaining guests.

Tea drinking’s popularity grew to a point where it was talked about in “Table Talk”(1895). The ritual was said to be, “a party in the daytime…[a] large, gas lighted ball at five o’clock where half of the ladies were in décolleté dresses, the other in fur tippets.”

In a way, tea parties gave women chances to exchange their ideas, thoughts, and opinions, which was pretty radical at that time.

Types of Food Served in These Parties

Types of Food Served in These Parties

The tea parties of the Victorian era had a menu similar to what we have today — an assortment of finger foods. Here are some of the most popular ones:

Tea Cakes

Sweet treats like pastries and cakes adorned the table.

The Victorians enjoyed almond, seed, pound, rice, plum, and Madeira cakes, and later switched to the Victorian sponge cake which was said to be “seasonable at any time” in “Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management.”

Cucumber Sandwiches

Dainty sandwiches made with thinly-sliced cucumber were popular with the Victorians. They were seen as a sign of high status (even though they had little nutritional value) and were, thus, served with afternoon tea.

That said, bread and butter, and assorted fillings like anchovies and sardines were also served, although they weren’t as popular as cucumber sandwiches.


Scones are a traditional part of afternoon tea. The finger food has its own set of etiquette for eating. Here’s how it went:

  • Split the scone with a knife.
  • Place the used knife on the knife rest or on the side of your plate.
  • Use a serving spoon to place jam or curd on your scone, then top it with a dollop of clotted cream.
  • Spread the jam, curd, and clotted cream with your spoon. Don’t use a serving spoon for the task.


The perfect menu of 19th-century afternoon tea would also contain savory tarts and pastries to tantalize one’s taste buds.


Dainty trifles are a type of cold dessert made with sponge cake and delicacies like custard, jelly, and cream. They sometimes accompanied thin slices of bread, butter, sandwiches, and other tea menu staples.

These little nibbles were enough to ward off hunger and tide people over until dinnertime rolled around. 

Types of Tea Parties

Types of Tea Parties

The classic afternoon tea is an amalgamation of several types of tea parties. They were an economical way of hosting gatherings so they easily gained popularity across all social classes from low, medium, and high. Take a look at how the Victorians celebrated and enjoyed different variations and customs of tea parties.

High Tea

High tea was a type of evening meal in middle-class households or the working class. It got its name from the tall chairs and high kitchen tables where the workers would gather around after a long day of work.

It was often accompanied by a stew, cold meat, or another type of savory meal for a satisfying dinner, which is why it was also known as “meat tea” or “great tea.”

At-home Tea

At-home tea was a standing-room-only “simple tea” party. It only had family members in attendance and the food menu was rather modest.

Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea is a social event with rituals and performances which would vary across class and county lines. The custom was to have sweets, savories, and other sorts of pleasantries with tea being served around 4 to 5 pm in the drawing room.

The women changed into long gowns for the event and tea was served in delicate tea sets as a sign of wealth and status. Best of all, corsets were optional!


Victorian afternoon tea parties set the tone for tea drinking around the world and the tradition has stuck for centuries. Many modern tea parties are still held to this day though many of the rules associated with it have become more relaxed.

While we still reach for a cup of tea in the afternoon, it’s not the only time we drink the beverage. No, ma’am. Most people drink anywhere between 3 to 4 cups of tea at various locations and times of the day. However, if you want that quintessential Victorian-like ambiance, you could go to a wide selection of hotels in London to celebrate this delightful afternoon break in traditional Victorian fashion.

1 comment

  • Rita Kempson Dewar

    My friends and I gather once a month for tea and sweet cakes. I enjoyed reading your history of tea parties. Thank You Rita

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