Many people think of High tea as that lovely custom that originated in Europe in the mid to late 19th century complete with flowers, tea dainties, sandwiches of cucumber laced with cream and dill, little saucers and ornate tea-pots, and flouncy dresses. But this custom could not be more opposite of what “High Tea” actually was.
The tea described above was actually called “Afternoon Tea” and was something only the wealthy partook of. In fact, the only use of tea in poorer cultures was as an evening drink with dinner – one of comfort rather than custom. (Kind of like many of us like decaf coffee with evening desserts.) Afternoon tea was started by the “royals.” The details vary on which royal exactly started the tradition, but nevertheless, this tradition evolved and was observed only by the wealthy. Because supper was served many hours after the noon meal, (between 8-9 hours), people grew hungry between the noon meal and the evening supper. Therefore the afternoon tea tradition began and was always served at four with crumpets, tea-cakes, and sandwiches to provide comfort and ease for the rumbling tummy. The working class were not so lucky:
High tea, “observed” by the working class, was a simple meal of sometimes only bread, butter, and black tea. (No creams, or sugars – those commodities were extremely expensive and therefore rarely acquired by a normal working-class household.) This consumption of tea was commonplace, functional, comforting, and of a warmth to the body and soul during those cold English evenings after returning from the factory late at night. There are several theories as to why it was called high tea; one of them states that the term came into being because the partakers sat in hard high-backed chairs. Another theory claims that it was called ‘high’ tea because it was served later in the evening – ‘high,’ being a way of describing ‘late,’ like when one would say it was late in the morning because the sun was ‘high’ in the sky.
Nevertheless, if you were a member of the working class, high tea was a custom simplicity, and practicality.
Myth busted. Now you know! So when you host a tea party, don’t say “high tea” on your invitations – call it what it is: an “Absolutely Awesome Afternoon tea.”