Global Tea Culture
By the mid-19th century, tea had spread across the globe and had become an important part of everyday domestic life for all classes. During the 1830s, the price of tea had fallen dramatically when the East India Company lost its monopoly of the China tea trade, leading to greater competition between individual merchants and sea captains who raced to bring home their tea on clippers, fast ships with tall masts and large sails. The plantations in India and Sri Lanka also provided a new and plentiful supply of cheaper black tea that the British shipped around the world. Grocers, chemists and department stores were among the many retailers who now included tea in the stock that they supplied.
In most households, tea was now drunk at breakfast, in the afternoon and after dinner. The serving of tea as an afternoon event developed in the 1830s or 1840s, an ‘invention’ which is often credited to Anna Maria, Duchess of Bedford, who is said to have ordered tea and something to eat to stem her hunger in the long gap between lunch and dinner. By the end of the century, afternoon tea had become an established event for all social classes, and remained an important familial or social occasion for which time was set aside and the tea table carefully prepared. For the working class in particular, substantial, wholesome foods served with tea at the end of the day became an established routine and an important means of nourishment. ‘High tea’ thus became recognised as a mealtime which was served with meats, vegetables and hearty foods, eventually becoming the main evening meal.
(Above) Anna Maria Russell (née Stanhope), Duchess of Bedford by John Cochran, after G.R. Wood stipple engraving, published 1834, National Portrait Gallery.
During the 19th century, tea was also championed as an alternative to alcohol by the Temperance Movement, and its consumption was encouraged in public places such as coffee houses, hotels and restaurants. From the 1870s the desire to take tea out led to the establishment of tea houses, tea shops and fashionable new tea rooms which appealed in particular to women, for whom they provided a place to socialise and enjoy refreshments without the need for male company. Tea was also served in smart hotels where the new and popular Tango prompted the establishment of afternoon tea dances which took place on a regular basis, a phenomenon that lasted until the 1920s.
For women in wealthy households, taking tea informally in the home gave rise to the necessity for looser and more informal clothing, in contrast to the contemporary tight-fitting corsets and large hooped dresses that did not permit movement with comfort and ease. Tea gowns began to evolve from the 1870s, made from materials such as cashmere and chiffon and decorated with velvet, pearls and ribbons. By the Edwardian era, they had become elaborate and fanciful items of clothing, harmonising with the sentiment that taking tea was an elegant and feminine time of the day.
The great ceramics manufacturers of 19th century Britain were simultaneously producing innovative tea wares that showcased the latest fashions and advances in craftsmanship, which could be displayed in the home. The small Royal Worcester teapot below (CCN 863) was made by the experimental potter, George Owen, who perfected the art of piercing. Although the teapot exterior is obviously permeable, a second solid wall inside contains the tea. Owen often collaborated with the senior gilder at Worcester, Samuel Ranford, who created the jewelled borders and applied the gold dots on the intersections of the pierced honeycomb.
CCN 863. Teapot and lid, porcelain, enamel and gilding, George Owen and Samuel Ranford, Royal Worcester, England, 1878 and CCN 1352. ‘Teaette’ tea strainer spoon, silver, George Gray, London, England, 1893.
During the 19th century, teawares also underwent a process of transformation and experimentation as manufacturers attempted to create products that reduced the labour of making tea. The 1880s saw the invention of self-pouring teapots designed for large Victorian families and in 1893 George Gray patented the ‘Teaette’ spoon, a hybrid tea-spoon and infuser (above, CCN 1352). Cube teapots were also invented to reduce the risk of tea spillages on ocean liners (below, CCN A.260) and, in 1906, the Simple Yet Perfect teapot, which could tip up onto its handle to separate the tea leaves from the brew, was developed. At the same time, other technological advancements also had an impact upon the development of tea wares. The arrival of electricity in the home prompted the invention of the electric kettle by Compton and Co. in 1891 and was developed by other manufacturers such as the Swan Company, Russell Hobbs and Peter Behrens.
CCN A.260. Cube teapot, silver-plated metal and wood, Robert Crawford Johnson (designer), Cube Tea Pots Limited (manufacturer), Leicester, England, c.1920
In America, tea had been a popular drink during the early 18th century when it was regarded as a hallmark of polite European culture. However, in the aftermath of the American War of Independence (1775-83) tea drinking came to be seen as unpatriotic and its rejection as a symbolic refusal of British rule. At the same time the coffee plantations of the Americas and Caribbean had made coffee both easier to access and much cheaper than the tea grown on the plantations in India and China. Nevertheless, tea was still imported into America in significant quantities and although enthusiasm for the drink never reached British levels, traditional tea sets were still produced in great numbers by fashionable companies such as Tiffany & Co. (below, CCN 426). From the 1870s the consumption of iced tea also provided a new, fashionable way to enjoy the drink.
Outside of Britain, the strongest tea culture to emerge during the 19th century was in Russia, where tea was valued for its ability to help counter the cold climate. The drink was first introduced to Russia in the early 1600s, but it was not until the mid-19th century that Russian merchants were permitted to import tea by ship from Canton, allowing imports to rise steadily and prices to fall, making tea more affordable for the middle and lower classes. Of central importance to the Russian tea ceremony was a richly decorated tea set (below, CCN 493), usually comprising of a matching teapot, tea cups, milk jug, strainer, sugar bowl and tongs.
CCN 493. Tea set, silver-gilt and cloisonné enamel, Pavel Ovchinnikov, Russia, 1896-1908 and CCN 1359. Tea glass, holder and spoon, silver-gilt, cloisonné enamel and glass, by Maria Semenova, Moscow, 1899-1908
During the late 19th century, these tea accoutrements were commonly decorated with cloisonné enamels in bright colours that became especially popular in Russia due to the trend for traditional, ‘national’ styles in the decorative arts. The Russian method of preparing tea is distinct from the European fashion; the tea is allowed to steep for a very long time before being diluted in a glass cup (above, CCN 1359), filled with water from a samovar. It is also usually sweetened with sugar, jam or honey or drunk with a sugar cube held in the mouth. Milk is rarely added.
The era of innovation in the design of teawares culminated with the invention of the tea bag in America in the early 20th century, which offered a clean, quick and easy way of brewing tea. Despite their popularity in the United States, the use of tea bags did not become widespread in Britain until the 1960s. For most of us today, tea is made by quickly and unceremoniously dunking a tea bag in a mug and adding milk from a carton. From its exclusive and exotic origins, tea has now become the most ubiquitous of beverages and, after water, is the most frequently consumed drink in the world.