The origins of high tea were actually quite practical. According to various historical records, high tea began in the early 19th Century. Allegedly, a member of Queen Victoria’s court, Anna Stanhope, Duchess of Bedford, disliked the long period of time between the noon meal and dinner, which was often eaten in at seven or eight o’clock in the evening. She began the practice of taking a small meal between three and five o’clock to help stave off hunger and prevent moodiness.
Anna Stanhope originally observed high tea as a secret ritual wherein servants were instructed to bring her a small meal of hot tea, cheeses, fruit, and sandwiches. Noting that other members of the Queen’s court suffered from afternoon peckishness as well, Stanhope let them in on her secret. Soon, most of the members of Queen Victoria’s court were taking part in this light meal.
When Stanhope left the Queen’s court to return to her home in London, she’d grown used to her afternoon meal and wished to share it with others. She invited other women to dine with her daily, and the idea of high tea caught on. Spreading from the high ranks of nobles into the lower castes of society, a light five o’clock meal became something to look forward to for all of those that could afford it.
Generally, the first high teas were very small meals indeed. Light, crunchy cookies, along with spongy cakes, toast, jellies, and fruit were among the foods of choice. The meal rarely contained meat or alcohol, centering mainly on items that would stave off hunger without being overly filling. As high tea gained popularity, the light fare that came with it became something of a fashion statement. Those with status flaunted it by serving a variety of exotic teas and gourmet finger foods.
Workers lower in society couldn’t afford such extravagance, especially after the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Factory workers had little use for delicate finger sandwiches and sugary treats. This began a tradition of expanding high tea into a full meal. Cold meats, light soups, and wine made their way into high tea, along with dense breads and meat-filled pies. In the lower classes, these meals were filling but simple. Wealthier individuals used this new trend to create even more exotic and elaborate spreads.
Today’s high teas are often as large and filling as a full meal, occasionally replacing dinner. Afternoon tea, which is usually served around two o’clock in the afternoon, has replaced high tea as being a light, energizing meal. Both kinds of tea are still social affairs in much of the United Kingdom and in parts of Europe. Women are primarily the ones in attendance, though formal teas may also include some men.