A Victorian Tea
A Bit of History
According to legend, tea was first discovered by Chinese Emperor Shen Nong in 2737 BC when some tea leaves floated into a pot of boiling water. It wasn't until the mid-1600s, however, that tea finally reached England. Due to its sale being controlled by trade monopolies, and that it had to be imported from China via boat traveling around the Cape of Africa and then north to England, it was a rather costly commodity.
The first known record of tea being imported into England was the charter granted by Elizabeth I to The East India Company. This document recorded ships reaching England in 1637, but dealings with Chinese merchants did not appear until 1644.
The first merchant to sell tea was Thomas Garway who offered it in both a dry and liquid form at his coffeehouse in Exchange Alley in London. The popularity of the coffeehouse grew quickly and there were more than 500 in London by 1700. By the middle of the 18th century, tea replaced ale and gin as the nation's drink.
As with most customs in England, when having tea became an accepted practice of the Royals, it then spread down to the working classes.
As supper normally was served at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m., having tea which was served along with light sandwiches and broths in late afternoon, helped ward off hunger until then. Two types of teas developed, one called a High Tea and one called a Low Tea. The one most commonly served by the wealthy was called a Low Tea and revolved more on its presentation and conversation. The working classes would celebrate a High Tea, which was more of a meal including meats and vegetables as well as tea, cookies and fruits.
By the middle of the 18th century, the tax on tea had risen so high that tea smuggling began. This also lead to the product's adulteration as it was a most profitable commodity. It wasn't until Prime Minister William Pitt had the Commutation Act passed which cut the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5% that tea smuggling ended. Adulteration of tea continued however, until the English Food and Drug Act of 1875 which imposed heavy fines or imprisonment.
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