Tea in the 18th Century

Posted by Oliver pluff on


Still Life: Tea Set, c. 1781–1783, painting by Jean-Étienne Liotard

Still Life: Tea Set, c. 1781–1783, painting by Jean-Étienne Liotard


Dear Oliver,


I recently read a wonderful article about early Tea Customs and Rituals and I think you would enjoy it!

 By the time the Revolutionary War took place, Tea was deeply entrenched into the daily lives of citizens in the original colonies and beyond. Although it was introduced from China in the 17th century, tea quickly became a staple for Europeans and thus the colonists arriving from Europe began to consume this new beverage as well.


As history shows, the path to readily available tea for the average consumer was fraught with political drama as the colonists used this commodity to protest unfair treatment by the British officials.


At first, tea was mainly accessed and consumed by wealthy individuals and families. The high cost and the expensive tea “equipment” made purchasing prohibitive for most people. But, according to Rodis Roth in “The Project Gutenberg eBook of Drinking Tea in 18th-Century America: Its Etiquette and Equipage,” by the middle of the 18th century when costs declined more people began to enjoy daily tea – possibly a third of all households took part in this ritual daily or at least on special occasions. “America was becoming a country of tea drinkers.”


Now, in the 21st century, it is easy to picture a scene where families consume tea in the mornings. Modern families sitting privately at home with a breakfast of toast or bread - drinking tea as a start to the day. This was exactly the case in the 18th century United States. Tea was regularly consumed in the mornings as a hot beverage with a light breakfast. Of course, it was all freshly baked or brewed and little came from pre-packaged or prepared boxes as we would see today, but in essence we can relate to a cup of morning tea.


In contrast, what is striking about the 18th century tea habits, is that tea was a common social event as well. As Roth proclaims, “The tea ceremony, sometimes simple, sometimes elaborate, was the very core of family life.” This second “social” tea was customary in the late afternoon or evening. During this later time, friends and visitors would come into the family home and enjoy tea together as a group event, sometimes adding punch and other beverages.


The afternoon tea we refer to today is likely more closely modeled from the British version. According to Henrietta Lovell in her book “Infused,” wealthy families created a tea ritual in the afternoon for a light snack before a late dinner. Afternoon tea served today at specialized shops or in exclusive hotels uses this model of tea and snacks.

 Unknown 18C British Artist, A Tea Party

Unknown 18C British Artist, A Tea Party

But, historically, in both countries families would set our their most lavish tea “sets” in full display on specialized tables. Often these tables folded and were only used for the special tea ceremony. They were frequently placed near the fire where the hostess served hot tea from the pre-positioned cups, which Roth notes, were presented in rows on rectangular tables and surrounding the pot on round tables. Sometimes the tables featured decorative linens, other times tea sets were placed directly on the table.


Teapot stand, Chelsea, England, 1759-1769

Prized sets of matching pots, cups, saucers, plus a creamer, sugar bowl, and a slop bowl were commonly made from porcelain and imported from China. Later, silver became fashionable for tea vessels as well. Silver accessories accompanied both types of tea services, especially popular were silver tea strainers and various tongs for sugar. Often the cups did not have handles as we routinely see today but were shaped as small bowls with the saucer resembling a small low bowl as well.


Especially well-off families could have them monogramed – hand painted on the porcelain or engraved in the silver. Children’s tea sets were seen as well. Often, they were sold as complete sets, but advertising of the day shows individual sales as well.


The Assembly at Wanstead House is a c. 1728–1732 group portrait by the English artist William Hogarth

Much of the information we have about early tea drinking and the various tea rituals comes from art such as oil paintings showing families or individuals drinking or serving tea, from personal journals describing tea and the surrounding events, or from newspaper articles and advertising of the day. These references clearly show how tea drinkers looked and acted while drinking tea, which in the afternoons or evenings was often described as a “festive” occasion. The pictures represent how much detail families went into regarding the tea experience. “The Assembly at Wanstead House,” now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, illustrates quite an elegant affair taking place in a large, richly decorated, English interior. The artist has filled the canvas with people standing and conversing while a seated group plays cards at a table in the center of the room,” Roth describes.


This scene produces another interesting note for the 21st century reader. It appears from the written accounts and art of the period that social tea was an occasion where both host and hostess participated with guests of both sexes in attendance. Tea in the colonies often lasted well into the evening with game playing and general socializing. Scholars conclude that men and women moved around the room together comfortably sitting, standing, and socializing throughout the evening.


Although these events are often mixed company, traditions of the oldest daughter of the house or the youngest unmarried woman dictated the tea server for the event, Roth notes. In wealthy homes these women were directly supported by servants supplying the hot water and accompaniments.


It is fun to imagine such a time where tea drinking was a favored social activity with games and grand socializing - families opening up homes to friends and sharing this delicious beverage. Thankfully, tea is now a drink readily available in shops and restaurants. And, it is easy to create a lovely pot at home utilizing Oliver Pluff’s many delicious varieties. Go ahead  - throw an evening tea party! 


Oliver adds:

I saw this on a website about living a Georgian lifestyle.  I can only imagine how the tea tasted...

From the Domestic Management book of 1800, we have the following step by step guide to making the perfect cuppa.  

As it frequently falls to upper maids and footmen to make tea apart, for company it is felt that a little know how to make it well, a little instruction is required.

The tea-pot should be of a size proportioned to the number of persons that are to be served and the size of the cups.

If six persons are to drink tea, the pot should hold as much as will fill nine cups. One tea-spoonful is sufficient for each person to have three cups of tea; which is the general quantity drunk by each. Six tea-spoons full is about half an ounce; there being 13 in one ounce.

These should be put into the pot, and boiling water poured on, till the pot is one-third full. It should thus stand a quarter of an hour, which will draw a good tincture.


The tincture of tea in the pot will make the whole sufficiently strong, and the boiling water added, will make the whole sufficiently hot. After filling the six cups, the pot will remain one-third full, as before, and will still draw the tea, and add fresh strength to it.