Sometimes all it takes is one contrarian action to change the course of the world. Such was the case with Anna Maria Stanhope, better known as the Duchess of Bedford and one of Queen Victoria’s Ladies-In-Waiting. Anna Maria is recognized in history for starting the delightful tradition of taking “afternoon tea” with all its accompaniments.
Back in the 17th century, dinner (the main meal of the day) was served between 11 am and 12 noon. It was a rich, heavy, alcoholic meal that could last up to 4 hours. During the 18th century, dinner was served gradually at a later and later time. In the early to mid 1800’s, the Industrial Revolution with its long working hours, pushed the dinner hour back to a very late time. Dinner was usually served between 7 to 9 p.m. and sometimes as late as 10 p.m. To fill the midday gap, an extra meal called luncheon was created. This new meal, however, was very light, and the long afternoon with no food or drink left people very hungry as they waited for their late dinner.
One afternoon, in 1840, the Duchess of Bedford experienced a sinking feeling in the middle of the afternoon so she asked her maid to bring her tea, bread and butter, cakes and biscuits with jam. This was considered a very strange request at the time so it was done in secret for fear of ridicule. The evening meal in her household was served fashionably late at eight o’clock, thus leaving a long period of time between lunch and dinner. The Duchess felt so revived after drinking tea and having an afternoon snack that she bucked tradition and bravely started inviting her friends to join her for afternoon tea. Her friends enjoyed this new “snack time” and the Duchess started making it into a social event. Her idea was a hit. Soon high society and the growing middle classes started imitating royalty and holding their own afternoon teas, or “Little Teas” as they were called (because of the small amount of food served). This pause for tea became a fashionable social event. During the 1880’s upper-class and society women would change into long gowns, gloves and hats for their afternoon tea which was usually served in the drawing room between four and five o’clock.
Traditional afternoon tea consists of a selection of dainty sandwiches (including of course thinly sliced cucumber sandwiches), scones served with clotted cream and preserves. Cakes and pastries are also served. Today, afternoon tea is not only a tradition, but is making a comeback in popularity. The Old Mill Toronto holds daily traditional afternoon teas and special evening “Twilight Tea” events.