The History and Etiquette of Afternoon Tea

Aug, 13, 2013

A tea without scones is like a meal without a fork!

Sugar and spice and everything nice are what little girls are supposedly made of, and they’re also essential ingredients of a traditional afternoon tea. This English custom is a sweet and civilized way to entertain, and it breaks up the day in the nicest way.

There’s something very special about this ritual. No one is quite sure when afternoon tea was first introduced in England, but the ceremony became widespread in the 1840s. Credit is given to Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, who, because of the long stretch of time between lunch and the evening meal, suffered from afternoon “hunger spells.” She remedied them with a tray of tea, bread and butter, and cake. Once she began sharing her delightful new habit with friends, it soon it progressed into a full-blown social event among the English aristocracy. The 1920s marked the height of the craze, complete with lots of guests, pageantry, servants, silver teapots, fine linens, musicians, elegant teacups, and the best tea money could buy.

High Tea or Afternoon Tea?
High tea another thing altogether from afternoon tea, which was originally the province of the upper class. High tea is not an afternoon respite of finger sandwiches, scones, and sweets, but the main meal of the day for the working class. It originated during the Industrial Revolution for workers who returned home after a long hard day of physical labor looking forward to a hot, hearty meal. (High tea may be called “high” because it was the main meal of the day, as opposed to afternoon tea, which was also called “low tea.”) Avoid using the term high tea term for afternoon tea, or you will find yourself in the Tea Drinkers’ Hall of Shame!

Tea Time
The traditional time for afternoon tea is any time between three and five o’clock.

Setting the Tea Table
Setting the tea table may be second nature to our English friends, but here in America it may seem a bit more complicated. In reality, it’s simple and fun! Here’s a checklist for each of the three locations involved:

1. In the Kitchen: The teakettle; fresh water, and loose-leaf tea.

2. On the Tea Tray: The teapot, a sugar bowl with sugar cubes and sugar tongs, a milk pitcher, a tea strainer, a bowl for the used tea leaves, a pitcher of hot water if necessary to dilute tea to a guest’s liking, and a small dish for the lemon wedges and lemon fork.

3. On the Tea Table: Teacups and saucers; forks and spoons; small plates, linen napkins, and plates filled with tea sandwiches, warm scones, and small cakes. plus a pot of jam and another one of double cream (or clotted cream, Devonshire cream, or thickly whipped cream) for the scones.

The tea tray should be placed at one end of the table. On one side, set out the teacups, saucers, and teaspoons. On the other side place the stacked plates, forks, and napkins. Plates of food go in the middle of the table.

Preparing the Tea

1. Select a loose-leaf tea such as English Breakfast or Earl Grey.
2. Boil fresh cold water in the kettle.
3. Pour a little boiling hot water into your teapot and whirl it around to heat it up, then pour it out.
4. Add 1 teaspoon of tea leaves to the pot for every cup of water.
5. As soon as the water boils, pour it over the leaves in the pot. Leaving water to boil too long causes it to loose its oxygen and therefore its freshness.
6. Allow tea to steep for 2 to 5 minutes. I like my tea strong, but many prefer weaker tea. It’s easy to dilute tea to taste using the pitcher of hot water on the table.

The Do’s & Don’ts of Afternoon Tea
DO try a little of each food served at the tea (both sweets and savories).
DO spread a scone with cream first, then jam.
DO avoid talking with your mouth full or taking large bites.
DO wait until you have swallowed your food before you take a sip of tea. The rule is one or the other, please!
DO look into—not over—your teacup when sipping. It’s polite!
DO place your napkin on the chair if you must leave the table during the event. (If you must leave for some reason, simply say “Excuse me.”)
DON’T place items that are not part of the tea service, such as keys, sunglasses, or phones, on the table.
DON’T use milk and lemon together in tea. The citric acid of the lemon will cause the milk to curdle.
DON’T place lemon in the teacup before adding tea. The tea is always poured first.
DON’T fill your cup to the brim with tea, in order to avoid messy spills.
DON’T tip your teacup too much when drinking—keep it slightly tipped.
DON’T leave your spoon in the cup. Place it on your saucer instead.
DON’T remove food from your teeth while in the presence of others.
DON’T move your plate more than 1 inch the edge of the table, and don’t push your plate away from the edge of the table when you’re done eating.
DON’T talk about personal food likes or dislikes during the tea. Tea offers a nice selection of treats to avoid this problem.
DON’T place your napkin on the table until you are ready to leave the table.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Lisa Mirza Grotts is a recognized etiquette expert, an on-air contributor, and the author of A Traveler’s Passport to Etiquette. She is a former director of protocol for the city and county of San Francisco and the founder and CEO of The AML Group (, certified etiquette and protocol consultants. Her clients range from Stanford Hospital to Cornell University and Levi Strauss. She has been quoted by Condé Nast Traveler, InStyle magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times. To learn more about Lisa, follow her on and

Follow Lisa Mirza Grotts on Twitter.[/author_info] [/author]

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