Language Dossier

Tea in British and American History

Some Facts About Tea

Tea is a drink that is popular all over the world. It is made by soaking the dried leaves or flowers of the plant Camellia sinensis in hot water. Tea can have other herbs, spices, or fruit flavours in it, such as lemon.

Sometimes the word "tea" is used for other drinks that have been made by soaking fruit or herbs in hot water, like "rosehip tea" or "camomile tea".

Popular additives to tea include milk, jasmine oil or flowers, sugar, honey, lemon, fruit jams, and mint.

Types of Tea

There are two main types of tea : black and green tea.

To make black tea workers take the leaves and spread them out on shelves where they can dry. Next the leaves are rolled and broken into pieces and put into a room where they absorb oxygen. Chemical reactions change the taste and character of the tea. Finally the leaves are dried with hot air until they turn brown or black. Most black tea comes from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and eastern Africa.

Green tea is made by putting freshly picked leaves into a steamer. This keeps them green. Then they are crushed and dried in ovens. India is the biggest producer and consumer of green tea.

Tea is mainly grown in China, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Japan, Nepal, Australia, Argentina and Kenya.

Tea can also be used as an alternative word for an afternoon meal (mostly in the Commonwealth countries), as in "I am having tea in a short while." The word also applies to "Afternoon tea", a meal served occasionally, usually featuring sandwiches, cakes and tea.

  • Tea in America

The Boston Tea Party was an act of protest by the American colonists against the British Government in which they destroyed many crates of tea belonging to the British East India Company on ships in Boston Harbor. The incident, which took place on Thursday, December 16, 1773, has been seen as helping to spark the American Revolution.

The American poet Wallace Stevens was a great tea-fancier and even wrote a poem entitled Tea, which was published in 1915.


 When the elephant's-ear in the park
 Shrivelled in frost,
 And the leaves on the paths
 Ran like rats,
 Your lamp-light fell
 On shining pillows,
 Of sea-shades and sky-shades
 Like umbrellas in Java.

  • Tea in Britain

Victorian Tea Time

The Victorian era was a kinder and gentler time. A time when women were ladies and men were gentlemen. An era when strict morals and etiquette ruled the day, when afternoon teas were a social event. Calling cards and flowers had a message of their own.

What is it about tea time that makes it so appealing? Why are more and more tea rooms opening up all over the country? It is because tea time brings with it beauty, romance, elegance and friendship.

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The History and Customs of Tea

~The History of Tea~

Tea was discovered in China almost 5,000 years ago! In the early 28th century B.C. lived the second Chinese emperor, Shen-Nung.  He was a man obsessed with the notion that he could, by taking certain precautions with regard to his body, prolong his life.  For instance, Shen-Nung was convinced that drinking only water that had first been boiled helped preserve his health (proving he was truly a man of his time!). It is a fortunate result of his different way of thinking that we now have the brew loved over the world: Tea.

One day while touring his provinces, the emperor sat down to rest and refresh himself.  As his servants drew up a fire, they unwittingly used the branches of a camellia sinesis plant. As the emperor's water boiled over the fire, bits of leaves drifted up off the burning boughs and settled in the water.  As the leaves steeped, the emperor became intrigued by the aroma of the brew and tasted it, seeming to forget his own fear as to what poison the strange drink might hold.  But Shen-Nung was pleased by its taste and calming effect. Thus, tea was born!

The famous Ch'a Ching (meaning "Tea Bible") was written by Lu Yu in 800 A.D. This book outlines all the Chinese methods and traditions of planting, harvesting, brewing and serving tea.

~ Tea as Medicine ~

For many centuries after its discovery by Emperor Shen-Nung, tea was used only for medicinal and spiritual purposes.  The Chinese believed that tea had a way of assisiting the mind in becoming sedate and meditative, which, according to the Chinese philosophy, is important to maintain a healthy person.  Because it was so revered, only Chinese Buddhist monks were allowed to cultivate the tea plant. 

The Custom of Taking Tea

When tea finally came to Europe it was a luxury only the wealthy could afford, costing more than $100 a pound in the late 1600's. Slowly, the amount of tea imported increased, the price fell, and the sales expanded.

As a craze of anything Oriental swept through Europe, tea became a way of life. Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the Marquis de Seven, makes the first mention of adding milk to tea in 1680. Tea remained popular in France for only about fifty years, being replaced by a preference to wine, chocolate and coffee.

The "Tea Mania" swept through England, just as it had through Holland and France. Tea imports rose from 40,000 pounds in 1699 to 240,000 pounds in 1708.

In 1840 Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford, had tea sent to her room one afternoon along with a tray of bread, jam, butter, small tea cakes and clotted cream. She formed this habit and found she could not break it.  Her friends picked up the custom and as the century progressed, afternoon tea became increasingly elaborate. Queen Victoria , relished the new craze for tea-parties. By 1855 the Queen and her ladies were in formal dress for the afternoon teas. By the 1880s ladies all over England were changing into long tea gowns for the occasion, appetites sharpened by the customary afternoon drive in a carriage.  The tea gowns were soft, festooned with lace, and always long and flowing. Ladies carried ornate fans to cool themselves in the afternoon heat.

Ladies and Gentlemen began to take their tea outside surrounded by entertainment such as an orchestra. On the grounds were flowered walkways, bowling greens, concerts and fireworks at night. Women were permitted to enter a mixed public gathering for the first time.

Types of Teas

Afternoon Tea is served at approximately four o'clock and can consist of whatever the hostess chooses: sandwiches, scones, cookies, a special dessert such as a fruit tart or a rich cake. It can be formally served in the dining room or at the living room tea table. Informal teas can be enjoyed in the kitchen, garden, as a picnic, or any location of choice.

Farmer's Tea is a combination of a Ploughman's Lunch (heavy grained bread, sharp cheese, fruit, and sausages or a meat pie) popular in British pubs, served with a sweet.

Full Tea is a complete four-course Afternoon Tea with sandwiches, scones, sweets, and a dessert finale.

Royal Tea adds a glass of champagne or sherry to the Full Tea.

Light Tea is a lighter version of Afternoon Tea with a scone and a sweet.

Cream Tea is one where heavy whipped or clotted cream is served to spread on the warm scones along with strawberry jam. It doesn't refer to the milk you put in your tea.

High Tea is most often served as a Full Tea. It is enjoyed at approximately six o'clock and is a light supper for the family or a before-theatre meal. An entree such as chicken a la king or meat pie may be served with breads, biscuits, salad, cheese, fruit, and sweets.