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An Alphabet of Feminism #20: T is for Tea

2011 February 28


Make tea, child, said my kind mamma. Sit by me, love, and make tea.

Samuel Richardson, Clarissa (1747)

Ah, the Joke Post comes upon us at last. T is for ‘t’… very droll. I lift a cup to that. But fie! Have we learned nothing on this lexical journey? First and foremost, tea was not always pronounced as we currently say it: when it first appeared in English in 1601 it was ‘taaaaay‘ and often written tay (like the modern French thé, a bit). It is not quite clear when and why the shift to ‘ti’ happened, but, then, few things are as easy to lose sight of as pronunciation (how many people remember that Keats was a Cockney?)

A portrait miniature of Catherine of Braganza by Jacob Huysmans.

Shall I be mother? Catherine of Braganza, painted by Jacob Huysmans.

Tea, of course, has the additional complication that it is not an English word (although what is?) – it came from the Dutch thee, in turn from Malay and, eventually, Chinese Amoy dialect: t’e, or the Mandarin ch’a. Woven into the geographical etymology, then, is a legacy of import history: around the mid-seventeenth century we procured our tea from the Dutch, who imported it from Malaysia and, ultimately, China. What exactly were they importing? Why, tea‘s first definition, of course: ‘the leaves of the tea-plant, usually in a dried and prepared state for making the drink’. In this form, tea began with a queen, and quickly became every eighteenth-century Cosmo girl’s first route of seduction.

Brew and Thunder.

But first – the drink. ‘Made by infusing these leaves in boiling water, having a somewhat bitter and aromatic flavour, and acting as a moderate stimulant’ – in this sense, the word tea is first recorded around 1601, so some trendsetters must have been aware of it before the widespread importing of the later seventeenth century, when tea really came into its own: Samuel Pepys tried it in 1660, and a couple of years later it found a celebrity backer in the be-farthingaled shape of the Portuguese queen consort to Charles II, Catherine of Braganza (remember her?). So, in England at least, tea was from the beginning tending towards the female of the species.

Catherine’s tea-drinking was partly to do with Portugal’s colonial links with Asia, but also with her temperament: solemn and pious, she initially had trouble fitting into the Protestant English court and her preference for a ‘moderate stimulant’ over the ales and beers otherwise drunk marked one of many departures. But tea was quickly owning its stimulating qualities and being marketed as a ‘tonic’, a civilized alternative to alcohol capable of soothing aches’n’pains and spurring on mental capacities: a zeitgeist for the intellectual impetus of the early Enlightenment – as against Charles II’s well-known debauchery – and, in fact, a ‘panacea‘:

Hail, Queen of Plants, Pride of Elysian Bow’rs!
How shall we speak thy complicated Powr’s?
Thou wondrous Panacea, to asswage
The Calentures of Youth’s fermenting rage,
And animate the freezing veins of age.

Nahum Tate, from Panacea: A Poem Upon Tea (1700)

But what started out as a Portuguese import became a matter of English national identity, and by the next century London’s East India Company had established a monopoly on trade, controlling imports into Britain (and thus, prices), using its extensive trade links with Queen Catherine’s dowry –then-Bombay – and the East Indies, and Asia. It was thus that the English turned not into a nation of coffee drinkers, but to devotees of the ‘Queen of Plants’. And a queen she certainly was, and not entirely distinct from the maternal and oft-secluded Queen Anne, who dramatically reduced the size of the English court and inspired a new fashion for calm domesticity and politeness. Thus, the bustling male-dominated coffee-houses, but also a more feminine fix at home…

Five Leaves Left.

So in 1738 tea came to mean not just some withered leaf, but also an opportunity for socialising! Hurrah! To be precise, tea became ‘a meal or social entertainment at which tea is served; especially an ordinary afternoon or evening meal, at which the usual beverage is tea’. The fact that it could connote an ‘ordinary afternoon meal’ made tea a convenient beverage to offer casual social callers, although it was also, of course, a beverage that demanded a whole host of conspicuous purchases: a full tea-set and the crucial Other Element – sugar. Thus your tea-table represented Britain’s colonial interests off in China and India to the tea-side, and Africa and the East Indies to the sugar-side, with all the attendant horrors of the emergent slave trade conveniently swept under the (Persian) rug.

two cups of tea and some lemon drizzle cake

Tea. Photo par Hodge.

The conspicuous consumption tea represented was exacerbated by its price: before mass importation in the mid-century had driven costs down, the leaf itself was fixed at so extortionate a price (a bargain in 1680 was 30s a pound) as to necessitate the purchase of a lockable tea-chest, which would become the responsibility first of the lady of the house, and, when age-appropriate, of her daughter. The woman who held the key to the tea-chest was, naturally, also the woman who made the tea – thus ‘Shall I be mother?’, a phrase of uncertain origin. One theory I came across was that it is a Victorian idiom related to the phenomenon of women unable to breastfeed naturally using teapot spouts to convey milk to their infant instead. OH THE SYMBOLISM.

Whatever the phrase’s specific origins, it’s certainly true that from tea‘s domestic beginnings onwards whole family power structures could hang on which woman this ‘mother’ was. Alas, London’s major galleries forbid image reproduction (WAAH), but if you turn to your handouts,  you will see this in action. This is the Tyers family: that’s Mr Tyers on the left, and his son just down from one of the universities. His daughter, on the far right, is about to be married (she’s putting her gloves on to go out – out of the door and out of the family). Her role as tea-maker has, in consequence, passed onto her younger sister, who now sits as squarely in the middle of the family portrait as she does in the family sphere. Conversely, in Clarissa, when the heroine angers her parents they sack her from her tea-task and grotesquely divide it up among other family members (“My heart was up at my mouth. I did not know what to do with myself”, she recalls, distraught. I WANTED TO MAKE TEA!).

And she feeds you tea and oranges…

Of course, while assigning the tea-making to your daughter could be a loving gesture of trust, it also pimped her marriageability: it requires a cool head and calm demeanour to remember five-plus milk’n’sugar preferences, judge the strength of the tea and pour it, all the while making small-talk and remaining attentive to your guests. Add to this the weighty responsibility of locking the tea away from thieving servants and you have the management skills of housewifery in miniature. It also showed off physical charms: poise, posture, the elegant turn of a wrist, a beautifully framed bosom. To take this momentarily out of the salon, no respectable punter would get down in an eighteenth-century brothel without first taking tea with the girls: Fanny Hill spends at least as much time drinking tea as (That’s enough – Ed), and, of course, this kind of performative tea-ritual femininity is a mainstay in the professional life of the Japanese geisha.

So, along with its identity as a colonial mainstay in Britain’s trading life, tea in its origins is also something specifically feminine: a kind of Muse inspiring intellectual greatness, a Queen to be worshipped as a symbol of Britain’s health and power, and a key element in the women’s domestic lives. It could be stimulating, relaxing and seductive, but, as would become disastrously clear, it was always political.

A young woman serves tea from the top of a letter T

NEXT WEEK: U is for Uterus

28 Responses leave one →
  1. Pet Jeffery permalink
    February 28, 2011

    Something that underlines the femininity of tea, and links back to ‘D’, is the dolls’ tea set. I don’t know about now, but when I was little (in the 1950s) this was a very popular girls’ toy. Girls used to conduct dolls’ tea parties (usually with teddy bears, as guests, in addition to dolls) very much like those eighteenth century eldest daughters did for real people. I think that it was always a dolls’ tea set — I never heard of a dolls’ dinner service.

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    February 28, 2011

    On a personal note, I was pleased to see (in your picture) a green Penguin mug — as I own one of these. Yours is “The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes”, mine is “The Invisible Man”. Since invisibility is linked with being unnoticed or negligible, perhaps the title of my green Penguin mug might be thought to connect with the femininity of tea.

    On “The Invisible Man”… and slipping towards a stream consciousness… I notice that the superhero team in the Fantastic Four comics includes a woman, and she is Invisible Girl. Yeah, right, she would be. Invisible Girl is married to Mr Fantastic — a feminist could make much of the names.

  3. Russell permalink
    February 28, 2011

    “Tea is soothing. I wish to be tense.” – I wonder if, when Giles made this comment, he was in fact inadvertently gendering the two popular drinks, tea and coffee, according to their supposed characteristics, despite the fact that both are caffeinated beverages and thus both stimulants. Or am I reading too much into it?

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      March 1, 2011

      Giles? The librarian/watcher in Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Or the late cartoonist for Express newspapers?

  4. Pet Jeffery permalink
    February 28, 2011

    When I think of tea-parties, the first to come to mind is “A Mad Tea-Party” — Chapter 7 of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. We are told in the chapter title that the tea-party will be mad, and this is confirmed when the first remark (after Alice sits down) proves to be the March Hare saying: “Have some wine.” Wine at a tea-party? Of course, there isn’t any, and the offer (as Alice puts it) “wasn’t very civil”. The chapter, I suppose, is a satire on the civility, gentility, femininity of a tea-party.

    Presumably, there was a similar satirical intent with the chimps’ tea-party, which was once a feature of London Zoo.

    “Civil” is an interesting concept, with “rude” and “military” as its antonyms in different contexts. Military meets “civil” in “civil war”, which brings to my mind an image of a soldier saying: “I say, would you mind awfully were I to shoot you?” Traditionally, I think, “civil” has been been viewed as the more feminine of the pair — both in civil/rude and in civil/military.

    • Hodge permalink
      March 2, 2011

      Surely, at least in the context of ‘civil war’ the word civil there is in the sense of ‘town, city’ (cf cives – citizen) rather than ‘polite’? (although ‘polite’ presumably stems from the idea of behaving as one would in a city, or ‘befitting a citizen’).

      • Hodge permalink
        March 2, 2011

        and, of course, citizens are men. in the roman way, anyway.
        i know women had a little something in the way of citizenship, but when the romans talk about what befits a citizen i would bet anything they’re talking about men down the forum.

        • Pet Jeffery permalink
          March 2, 2011

          Yes, I’m sure that “civil war” uses “civil” in the sense of “town or city”… All the same, it’s hard to budge the idea from my head that a civil war ought to be polite war.

          • Hodge permalink
            March 3, 2011

            Ah, what I meant was, that if ‘civility’ is at its root to do with genteel roman businessmen down the forum, it rather undermines the idea of ‘civility’ as a feminine concept…

            ….although i agree that it’s often considered that politeness is what is owing to a ‘lady’.

  5. Aisling Kenny permalink
    February 28, 2011

    Re: the first paragraph, it’s often still pronounced ‘tay’ in Ireland. Mainly by culchies and old biddies, but still. My history teacher’s always on about how cool we are with our Elizabethan pronunciations. Which is obv. due to English not being established properly here until Tudor-ish times, but that’s a whole other story. /resists urge to ramble endlessly on Hiberno-English/

    Heh, I didn’t work out that tea was an actual meal until I was about 12. Remember being very puzzled as a kid, reading Enid Blyton. Thought ‘high tea’ was drinking tea on tall stools or something. XD

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      March 1, 2011

      During my English working class childhood, in the 1950s, “tea” was the evening meal. It was mainly a bread and butter affair, sometimes with shop bought cakes on Saturday, and with home made cakes on Sunday (and as far into the week as they lasted). When my mother started to go out to work, in the late 50s or early 60s, it ceased to be practical to have a “dinner” in the middle of the day — so that the cooked meal shifted to teatime, but I think my family continued to call it “tea” for several years after that change.

      But a bread and butter “tea” in the evening, depended on a cooked “dinner” in the middle of the day. The social change that destroyed it for our family (and I’m sure for many other families) was the increasing number of women in the workplace in the late 1950s, and into the 1960s. “Tea”, as a meal, depended upon women in the home.

      High tea in Enid Blyton books was a middle class affair. (Nobody’s father in Enid Blyton did the same kind of work as my father [he was a woodcutting machinist].) I suspect that, in general, that the house-wifely virtues of the 1950s continued longer in middle class households. And, perhaps, “tea” — approximately as I’d known it — persisted longer with the middle classes… though middle class “tea” may well have included cake throughout the week.

      • Hodge permalink
        March 2, 2011

        yes, the class issue is certainly relevant here – the teapot-as-teat I mention in the post was itself a lower-class thing (cf nanny!), and as tea got cheaper in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries its meanings definitely changed (note the ambiguous wording of the definition of ‘tea’ as a ‘meal’ in the post). My granny always talked about ‘eating your tea’ (usually served round 5-6). In the upper classes it often seems to be a sign of gentility to take your tea early (round 4), just as it was to eat your main evening meal as late as possible. would have liked to have expanded on this, but, as you can see, the post as is was a bit of a leviathan…

        • Pet Jeffery permalink
          March 2, 2011

          Yes, taking tea around four o’clock would have been a sign of gentility. I think that my dad finished work around half past five, so tea in our house was usually after six o’clock. Also, in the 1950s, children finished school later than they do now. Junior schools finished at ten to four, and secondary schools at four o’clock. Since half an hour’s detention was a frequently applied punishment (sometimes for the entire class) children were often not free to take tea until almost five o’clock.

          Only one childhood detention remains with me sufficiently clearly to recall why I was kept in after school. I must have been about nine at the time. The teacher decided that those of us who hadn’t mastered the week’s spellings should remain in the classroom (actually a wartime hut) until they had done so. One by one I spelt them correctly after multiple wrong guesses. Finally, only one word remained: “February”, around which I couldn’t get my head, no matter how I tried. All the other children had gone, leaving just the teacher and me. It must have been after half past four. Eventually, after yet another wrong guess, she wrote “February” on a slip of paper and sent me home with it — saying that I should sleep with it under my pillow. I did so and, strangely, never again had any trouble spelling the word. (Although, I did have a period of spelling “library” — which seemed to me an exact rhyme for “February” — as “libruary”.)

    • Hodge permalink
      March 2, 2011

      Oh that’s interesting. But then I shouldn’t really be surprised – Chaucer read properly sounds kind of Welsh, doesn’t he? And one of my tutors used to have a kind of party-trick of reading The Prelude as Wordsworth himself would most likely have sounded, in the process revealing rhymes that don’t work in RP. I always like spotting those in medieval, elizabethan and sometimes even (occasionally) eighteenth-century poetry – shake your preconceptions quite pleasingly.

      • Aisling Kenny permalink
        March 2, 2011

        The archaic pronunciations are dying out steadily here, though, which is pretty sad. But then again, it only lasted so long at all because of Dev driving us all back to the bloody C18th the second he got any power. :/
        My paternal granddad always pronounced certain words pretty bizarrely. (Then again, he was from Roscommon. It’s a strange place…) Like, he’d say passenger with the emphasis on the middle syllable. Loads of words’d get the syllables messed around with, actually, so I’d often have no clue what he was talking about.
        That and the random little bits of bastardised Irish. Those are pretty awesome.

        …Yeah, that Hiberno-English etymology rant was pretty inevitable, wasn’t it? XD

  6. Custard permalink
    March 2, 2011

    I clicked the Tyers family portrait and omg that skirt has eaten almost a whole chair!

    Great post as ever x

    • Hodge permalink
      March 2, 2011

      Thank you :D
      and YES, THE AWESOME POWER OF THE HOOP. I read lots of period literature where in the drawing room the size of the women’s hoops took up so much space the men had to sit on the floor.
      also alphabet-referential, amirite?

      • Miranda permalink*
        March 3, 2011

        Class is definitely a real consideration here (as always, but particularly with tea). At what point does tea become cheap enough that everyone can have tea (because the tea rituals in the article are not working class customs at all)? And then when everyone can get tea, “tea chests” and the etiquette codes therein die off, I assume, because they’re predicated on tea being expensive … and then, I guess, quite a bit later, tea starts coming in bags.

        *goes to wikipedia to read about tea*

        It is a testament to the power of Disney that I can’t read the words “east India trading” without thinking of Those Films About The Pirates. I like the idea that one can argue TEA drives their plots (the first shot of the second film is of an elaborate tea set being rained on!), except that if they HAD all just sat down and had a cuppa ,we’d all have been spared at least an hour of “why is this happening?”.

        • Hodge permalink
          March 3, 2011

          I wonder if you could make a sensible argument that coffee has rather overtaken tea as a class divider in modern times?

          …It’s overpriced (while you can certainly get a ludicrously expensive cup of tea, it feels less justified when Starbucks shove you a cup with the teabag floating limply in some lukewarm water and then charge you two pounds, than it does when you’re getting a mochachocaexpressochino with whipped cream and sparkles);

          it can be used to justify some lavish spending (‘I can’t drink instant – I must buy an expresso maker / cappuccino dispenser / imported luxury beans ( / whatever else forthwith!’ (you can tell I don’t drink coffee, can’t you?));

          and, finally, its supposed Italian origins facilitate a high level of snobbery and sort of oh-so-cosmopolitan attitude in both the drinker and the advertiser (

          As opposed to this, you have the near-fabular significance of ‘PG Tips’ as a synonym for cheap tea, and, of course, ‘builders’ tea’, which has now become a recognised phrase (and a recognised way to order tea). I am also, bizarrely, reminded of Adrian Mole wondering why tramps ‘always ask for money for a cup of tea – don’t any of them drink coffee?’ As ridiculous (and funny) as that is, the idea of asking for a cup of tea seems to have acquired a kind of ‘basic comfort’ significance that coffee does not have.

          I suspect that coffee’s rise in modern times began in the 80s (but have no idea why I think that), and that tea’s descent to ubiquity was a result, as you say, of pricing structures changing (something the slave trade probably helped…)

          • Hodge permalink
            March 3, 2011

            Oh, and if I had to put a date on it, I’d say 1780s… it had definitely reduced in price substantially by the end of the c18th.

            Bit gutted now that I didn’t talk about tea after the enlightenment, cos it’s clearly really interesting (witness all these points that are being raised) but i got so overexcited…

          • Simon permalink
            March 4, 2011

            But of course in America coffee (the nasty water-y lukewarm and filtered stuff) is the common man’s drink what you ‘ave with your Dunkin’ Donuts by the gallon for breakfast and tea is probably considered an effete upper middle-class pretension.

            Wouldn’t venture a guess as to why it worked out that way round though.

          • Hodge permalink
            March 4, 2011

            I can’t speak for coffee’s ‘decline’, but I would guess the tea’s connection with Britishness has a large part to play. Which in turn has a lot to do with the East India Company, and lots of the stuff I outline above. But, of course, Seattle was the original home of Starbucks, no? Rum indeed.

          • Pet Jeffery permalink
            March 4, 2011

            I assume that tea had become much cheaper by 1830, anyway, because William Cobbett (in his “Rural Rides”) lamented that the English diet had changed from bread and beer to tea and potatoes.

  7. Pet Jeffery permalink
    March 2, 2011

    Talk of tea has reminded me of some alternative lyrics (at least, I assume they’re alternative) from my childhood. Sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”:

    The Yellow rose of Texas and the Man from Laramie
    Went into Rossi’s cafe to have a cup of tea
    They found it was delicious and had another cup
    Then left old Davey Crockett to do the washing up.

    (“The Man from Laramie” was a 1950s television western.)

  8. Pet Jeffery permalink
    March 3, 2011

    I think that there should be a link from this post to Markgraf’s Horrible Tea Snobbery:

    • Miranda permalink*
      March 3, 2011

      Ah, so true. Markgraf’s Tea Snobbery is legendary. He is well schooled in the rigours of teattiquette! One of many reasons why we love him.

      (I put sugar in jasmine tea LAST WEEK, no one tell him!)

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        March 3, 2011

        You put in as much sugar as you like. Defy tea snobbery! Personally, I drink Yorkshire Tea.

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