I rarely hear the expression “low tea” any more. But if I do, I’m transported back to a specific time every weekday afternoon at my boarding school in the English countryside when we would sip warm tea and dip our dry Rich Tea biscuits (and occasionally cake, if we were lucky) into our cups at the end of a long school day. Low tea was, for many, the high point of the day; long were the minutes spent waiting in class for the school bell to ring out, heralding the arrival of caffeine-and-sugar-time. “High tea” was a different story, and came a couple of hours later.
On British National Tea Day, let’s look at the origin and history (and widespread misunderstanding) of the terms “low tea” and “high tea”, and find out just what is eaten at what time on each occasion, and where the names came from. Was it the tides, the time of day, or something to do with the quality or class of the food prepared?
In the 17th and 18th centuries, “tea was generally consumed within a lady’s closet or bedchamber and for a mainly female gathering.” Ladies would receive callers with their morning tea, usually “abed and bare-breasted” (from “A Social History of Tea” by Jane Pettigrew). It is generally thought that the English afternoon tea tradition was established in the early 19th century by Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, a lifelong friend of Queen Victoria whom she served for a time as a lady of the bedchamber. The Duchess, feeling the energy low that hits us all in the late afternoon, started asking for light sandwiches and tea to be brought to her to tide her and her rumbly-tummy over between the lunchtime and evening meals. Then she invited others to join her in this afternoon repast, and so the tradition of afternoon or “low” tea was born. Ladies of the fashionable upper classes would serve a ‘low’ or ‘afternoon’ tea around four o’clock, just before a promenade in the park.
Low tea can consist of any combination of biscuits, sandwiches (cucumber please), scones with clotted cream and jam, and, most importantly, tea. It’s not so much a meal as a light and indulgent afternoon snack. (Although who would call scones with clotted cream and jam ‘light’?) “Low tea” got its name from the furniture and setting of those partaking of the late afternoon fare: in living or drawing rooms in low armchairs, with low side-tables pulled alongside them on which could be placed cups and saucers, doilies and side-plates.
High tea, on the other hand, was served at the dining table. High tea is a more substantial evening meal, usually consisting of “meat and two veg” (or a similar combination); it was the main meal put on the table at around 6 pm for the working man of the family to return home to. However, high tea wasn’t a meal just of the working class. The middle and upper classes would sometimes take a high tea in the early evening – at five or six o’clock – replacing the later evening dinner, especially if there were evening entertainments planned (much like our modern pre-theater meal) or not enough staff on duty to cook or serve the dinner feast. Daily Telegraph of 1893: “A well-understood ‘high tea’ should have cold roast beef at the top of the table, a cold Yorkshire pie at the bottom, a mighty ham in the middle. The side dishes will comprise soused mackerel, pickled salmon (in due season), sausages and potatoes etc., etc. Rivers of tea, coffee and ale, with dry and buttered toast, sally-luns, scones, muffins and crumpets, jams and marmalade.”
For inexplicable reasons, “high tea” has persisted in modern English usage – especially in America – and is often used erroneously instead of “low tea”, which is now moreorless obsolete, to describe the traditional afternoon fare. When an American hotel or tea-house offers a “high tea” service, you can be sure you’ll be eating the equivalent – at least linguistically – of tea at the Waldorf, and not the fish and chips and mushy peas that characterized the high teas of yore.
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Staying on the tea theme, let’s address the subject of what you call each of your meals and what this says about you (at least in England until fairly recently). Here, when someone invites you to “tea”, this can mean a couple of different things, depending largely on your host’s geographical location or social class: they could be inviting you for a cup of tea and a biscuit in the mid-afternoon, or they could be asking you to join them for their evening meal. It seems to be a peculiarly British phenomenon that you can tell a lot about someone’s social class — or where they come from — simply by what they call their meals (and also by what they call some of the rooms in their houses — but that’s for a separate discussion). Beware: this is something of a linguistic minefield …
Here’s a journey through a day’s repasts in England (at least as I understand them).
Morning: Breakfast: a morning meal, from break + fast, as in “breaking the nightly fast”. This is fairly standard throughout the UK and English-speaking countries.
Mid-morning: Elevenses: a snack eaten in the morning, usually biscuits or cake (a bit like tea in the afternoon). It’s an old-fashioned term – and is a curious “double plural” of the number eleven, at which time it’s usually taken. According to Merriam-Webster, it dates back to about 1819. Its use now is confined mainly to the elderly or when speaking in jest. Wikipedia reminds us that for elevenses, Winnie-the Pooh preferred honey on bread with condensed milk; Paddington Bear often took elevenses at the antique shop on the Portobello Road; and it’s a meal eaten by Tolkien’s Hobbits between second breakfast and luncheon.
Middle of the day: Lunch/luncheon or dinner. This is where social class distinctions begin to creep in. Dinner was historically the main and most formal meal of the day, and from the Middle Ages up until the 18th century it was usually taken at midday. As working men began to travel further away from home, and it became logistically more sensible for them to take a portable, lighter meal in the middle of the day, the main meal of the day shifted to the evening, still called dinner, and the midday meal, now lighter, came to be known as luncheon, or lunch for short. However, in northern England and among the working class, the word dinner is traditionally used for the midday meal even if it’s lighter and taken to or at school or work. Hence the enduring term “school dinner”, and the English “dinner ladies” who supervise schoolchildren while they scoff or throw around their midday meal. Lunch is otherwise now fairly standard for the midday meal — throughout the English-speaking world in fact. But luncheon is reserved for more formal occasions, and is used very rarely (and somewhat pretentiously) by the upper-middle and upper classes to describe their midday repast.
Mid-afternoon: Tea or low tea: a snack — usually consisting of biscuits, a small sandwich, and/or baked goods — and a cup of tea (or coffee), to tide oneself over and provide an energy boost between the midday and evening meals. For a brief social history of the meal known as tea, and to understand the distinction between “low tea” and “high tea”, see an earlier Glossophilia post on the subject. Although “low tea” is still used in some schools and establishments, the term is now virtually obsolete and wouldn’t be understood by most Brits.
Evening: Tea/high tea, supper or dinner. As explained above, dinner historically and traditionally refers to the most substantial and formal meal of the day, which in modern times is typically taken in the evening. However, as also mentioned above, English northerners and midlanders, as well as working-class Brits, still often refer to the midday meal as dinner and then to their evening meal as tea. This word evolves from the original “high tea”: a more substantial evening meal, usually consisting of “meat and two veg” (or a similar combination) put on the table at around 6 pm for the working man of the family to return home to. However, high tea wasn’t a meal of just the working class. The middle classes would sometimes take a form of high tea in the early evening – at five or six o’clock – replacing the later evening dinner, especially if there were evening entertainments planned (much like our modern pre-theater meal) or not enough staff on duty to cook or serve dinner.
Nowadays, supper, which has always described the last meal of the day, has come to replace dinner as the standard middle- or upper-class word for the evening meal, especially when referring to the informal meal eaten at home with family members. Dinner tends to be reserved for more formal occasions, such as when inviting guests for an evening meal (you invite people to dinner), eating out in restaurants (you meet or go out for dinner), or for official or celebratory events and occasions.
Late evening (before bed): Supper refers sometimes — in some parts of the UK and in working- or middle-class usage — to a late-evening snack (similar to afternoon tea in its constitution) that follows the main evening meal and is taken before retiring. I believe it has become a rather old-fashioned name, verging on obsolete, for this particular meal.
Confused? Because this verbal meal-maze has been so studied and picked over by social historians and linguists in recent years, it’s probably been affected by an increased self-consciousness — as well as by social (both upwards and downwards) and geographical mobility — so it’s less indicative of one’s social standing or location than it used to be, and meanwhile England continues to move in the direction of a classless society. But you still might want to be mindful of all this when you receive that tea invitation — especially if it’s from a kindly northern stranger for a 5.30pm start time …
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Some of this was covered in an earlier Glossophilia post, “You’re not just what you eat but also what you call the meals you eat”