Tea Time


Tea Time

The Respite of Tea Divides Up the Days


The advent of gas lighting around 1830 brought longer working days. Breakfast was eaten earlier and earlier, lunch was a light snack, and supper got pushed back later and later. It was during this era that Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford (1783-1857), finding the time long between the midday and evening meals, took the habit of being served tea and a snack in her boudoir at about 4 o'clock. This custom was soon taken up by all, and became the famous "afternoon tea", or "four o'clock tea".

The nobility and rich bourgeoisie often had a light meal in bed in the morning, the "breakfast tea". The men would then leave to tend to their affairs, and the women would look after the household organization. In the afternoon, the ladies would visit friends, or receive them in turn, for four o'clock tea. This was the occasion for donning a vaporous indoor dress called the "tea gown". On other days, the woman of the house might take "nursery tea", with the children in their rooms; or perhaps the whole family would join in a "family tea". In the evening, one dressed for the "dinner party", to which 6 to 20 guests would be invited. One drank tea and ate pastries served in the living room by the lady of the house, while listening to music and playing cards or parlor games. If the occasion was a "tea dance", 20 to 40 people in evening dress would arrive to play, dance, and dine more elaborately in the dining room.

Tea was important in the diet of workers' families as well. If there was money for a piece of meat, that meat was kept aside for the man of the house. Women and children made do with bread and tea. One advantage of this drink was that it could be purchased in small quantities. Another was that it provided an energy boost, and improved tasteless meals. Even poor families bought tea, and the workers' evening meal was called "high tea".

Je portais à mes lèvres une cuillerée du thé où j'avais laissé s'amollir un morceau de madeleine. Mais à l'instant même où la gorgée mêlée des miettes du gâteau toucha mon palais, je tressaillis, attentif à ce qui se passait d'extraordinaire en moi. Un plaisir délicieux m'avait envahi, isolé, sans la notion de sa cause. Il m'avait aussitôt rendu les vicissitudes de la vie indifférentes, ses désastres inoffensifs, sa brièveté illusoire, de la même façon qu'opère l'amour, en me remplissant d'une essence précieuse : ou plutôt cette essence n'était pas en moi, elle était moi. J'avais cessé de me sentir médiocre, contingent, mortel. D'où avait pu me venir cette puissante joie? Je sentais qu'elle était liée au goût du thé et du gâteau, mais qu'elle le dépassait infiniment, ne devait pas être de même nature. D'où venait-elle? Que signifiait-elle? Où l'appréhender?

Marcel Proust, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, 1913-1922.

©1996: Centre d'histoire de Montréal
Picture source: Mme Cécile Gagné