When I was in elementary school I checked out every one of my library’s books about the Loch Ness monster. The most fascinating anecdote came from the 1930s and was about a English couple on holiday in Scotland. While the couple were enjoying tea time the monster was spotted by another hotel guest. Rather than flying to the window to witness the creature, the husband remained seated to finish his cup of tea! Tea and its traditions certainly have a strong hold on Britain.
As a devoted tea drinker, Anglophile, and history buff, I’ve been meaning to read up of tea’s long relationship with British society. I noticed several lengthy books on the subject, but haven’t picked one up until discovering the charming Tea and Tea Drinking by Claire Masset. The author condenses a remarkable history in this concise 56 page book. She discusses tea’s origins in ancient China, its introduction to England in the 17th century, and its longterm effect on British society.
Masset reveals the social aspects of tea. Enjoying the drink began as a pastime of the wealthy. It was first served in the gentleman-club-like coffee houses. It was an important aspect of home life, influencing women’s relationships and status. Increased availability reduced prices, especially after the East India Company founded British tea plantations in India. By the 19th century everyone could afford to drink tea multiple times a day. There are chapters describing the businesses that sprung up in support of tea drinking: tea dealers, the ceramics industry, tea gardens tea houses, in-store tea rooms, packaging and advertising.
In the late 20th century many of the long-held ceremonies surrounding tea drinking declined due to modern convenience. For instance, the simple mug with tea bag made tea sets, tea caddies, and lengthy tea time unnecessary. Coffee break has infiltrated (or percolated to) Britain, displacing tea. Still, Britain is a nation of tea drinkers. In recent years there has been growing interest in returning to traditional ways of enjoying the drink now with loose-leaf, organic, and fairly traded tea.
I’m a big fan of this publisher. Shire‘s well-designed books feature specialist authors and display high production quality. The publisher several new food history books including Early Electrical Appliances and Old Cooking Utensils. A few years ago BBC Radio 4 broadcast an excellent program on the history of tea in Britain. You may listen online.
P.S. Naturally I don’t put milk in tea as the English do. I’ve always thought that was gross. I add a little honey, but that’s it. Zoe and Ashley, however, enjoy their tea with a bit cashew milk.