Monday, 7 December 2015

Mad about tea! (The Victorians love for a simple cup of tea)

Originally introduced to Britain in the 1650’s from China, Tea was a luxurious drink for the wealthy. But by the eighteenth and nineteenth century an increase in availability meant that it had become much more normal to have tea. Julie Fromer describes that ‘tea had become a commodity of necessity, forming a crucial part of daily patterns of consumption and domesticity’(1) showing that society had taken tea by storm and integrated it into their everyday lives. So much so that the crockery they used became a symbol of class and wealth.

In my blog I will give an insight into the world of tea and tea parties exploring how the types of crockery used and the time of day played a big part in the way Victorians were viewed. For the purpose of this blog I attended the Alice in Wonderland exhibition at the British library and have included some photos of my findings. I also went to the Victoria and Albert museum to research the ceramics and crockery used in Victorian Britain.  
Figure 1. Marigolds: The china closet, knole by Ellen Clacy

China and crockery in general played a big role in showing class within a household. The more delicate and ornate, the more valuable. One way Victorians showed class was to display their crockery, tea trays, and expensive objects for all to see. As depicted in this watercolour by Ellen Clacy housed in the Victoria and Albert museum, It shows a famous china cabinet belonging to Lady Betty Germain at Knole. What is interesting about this watercolour is that is shows the blue china that was very popular in the Victoria era. This type of china is also shown within the book A Victorian household by Shirley Nicholson. Based on the diaries of a Victorian woman an inventory of everything in a house was taken and a specified note was taken about ‘a shelf on brackets, especially designed for the display of blue and white China.’(24) This account clarifies that blue and white china was very fashionable but also was used for display in homes.

Elizabeth Gaskell gives an interesting description of a china cupboard in Mary Barton published in 1848 ‘In the corner between the window and the fireside was a cupboard, apparently full of plates dishes, cups and saucers […] However, it was evident Mrs Barton was proud of her crockery and glass, for she left her cupboard door open, with a glance round of satisfaction and pleasure.’ (15) Gaskell shows how prominent the cabinet was in the household and how much it represented the wealth and class the Barton’s had. Just in this one description you get the hint that by leaving the cupboard doors open Mrs Barton wanted to show the world her collection of crockery.
But on the other hand, Gaskell portrays the working class side of life by showing how the Barton’s only have enough crockery for six people so their guest would have to bring her own cup and saucer.
Figure 2. Plate by Christopher dresser 

One of the major contributors of crockery and ceramic’s in the Victorian era was Minton’s, A large manufacturer. Fig.2 shows a plate, cup and saucer that Minton’s produced it is housed within the Victoria and Albert Museum. This set would have appealed to the middle and upper-class diners and was designed in 1875 by Christopher Dresser, it is made of bone china and would be very delicate. It also is a representation of the fashion at that time by having a Japanese and Chinese style ornament printed and painted as a design. While at the Victoria and Albert Museum I came across many pieces of crockery which all had foreign aspects to them, Foreign designs were another peak of fashion within Victorian Britain and it is even shown in Mary Barton ‘bright green japanned tea-tray, having a couple of scarlet lovers embracing in the middle […] propped up by a crimson tea-caddy, also of japan ware’(15) The Japanese style was very popular in the Victorian time and still is integrated into crockery today. I have a Japanese style blue and white plate at home so the theme is still available in in modern life.
Figure 3. Alice at the Mad Hatters Tea-Party, John Tenniel
In Alice’s Adventures in wonderland by Lewis Carroll published in 1865 you get a different side to the care and pride that is placed upon tea, crockery. At the Mad tea-party Carroll depicts a table set out for many people but the three seated are all crowded in one corner, It is always tea time for the characters and there is ‘no time to wash the things between whiles.’(64) This shows that all of the crockery is on display but most of it is not clean, the table is a mess which wouldn’t comply with the expectation of a normal tea party.
The etiquette at a normal tea party is to always be polite and to be delicate with everything you do. Which is all turned upside down in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The complete disregard for the tea party itself is unsettling, in Victorian England the expectation is to be light handed with the crockery. Whereas the Hatter and the March Hare tried to ‘put the Dormouse into the teapot’ (67) and they upset the milk jug when moving places. The manners and etiquette can both be seen in this interpretation of Alice in wonderland in 1985
The etiquette is exaggerated in this clip but it shows how manners did not matter at the Hatters tea-party. One point where it is shown is whether it is civil to offer wine if you have none. But also sitting down at a table when you haven’t been invited.

Figure 4. Tea cups and saucers at the
British Library
The mad tea-party in Alice’s Adventures in wonderland resonated within culture and within people so much that people have tried to capitalise on profits from the brand. Creating china tea sets and cake stands decorated with the original illustrations by John Tenniel this is shown in fig 5. I found these products when I visited the Alice’s Adventures in wonderland exhibition at the British Library. The original cup and saucer set on display but these sets were found in the gift shop.    
While researching tea I came across a website which told the history of how afternoon tea started. Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford complained about having a ‘sinking feeling’ in the late afternoon which in turn made her take tea in her chambers around this time. This grew and eventually she invited guests to join her. Then more and more social people decided to follow the trend and started creating tea parties. The time for tea was very important, before dinner which was usually served at 8 o’clock, afternoon tea had two varieties. A low tea or afternoon tea was served at 4 o’clock for the upper-class people. Whereas a high tea was served at 5 or 6 o’clock in place of dinner for the middle and lower classes. This is the reason it is always tea time at the mad hatters tea party, it is always 6 o’clock.
Figure 5. Afternoon Tea, Alexander Rossi
Tea parties are still going on today and is considered very elegant and formal but it is normally called an Afternoon tea which is held in mid to late afternoon.
Tea is still very widely used within modern society but it doesn’t have the same etiquette and manners required because it is so widely available. People can drink tea in their own homes, but Afternoon tea is normally saved for an occasion and is taken in a country house with scones, jam, cream, finger sandwiches, cakes and a large pot of tea.

Works Cited:
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; And, Through the Looking Glass: And What Alice Found There. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print
Fromer, Julie E. A necessary luxury: tea in Victorian England. Athens: Ohio UP, 2008. Ebook
Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. London: Penguin classics. 2003. Print
Nicholson, Shirley. A Victorian household. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing ltd, 2005. Print
Works Cited (images):
Figure 1. Clacy, Ellen L. “Marigolds: The China Closet, Knole”. Victoria and Albert Museum Web. 1880. 1 December 2015
Figure 2. Dresser Christopher. “Plate”. Victoria and Albert Museum. Web. 1875. 1 December 2015
Figure 3. Tenniel, John. “Alice at the Mad Hatters Tea Party. Digital image The Victorian web 2007. 6 December 2015
Figure 4. Foord, Korie. “Tea cups and saucers at the British Library” 2015 JPEG file
Figure 5. Rossi, Alexander. “Afternoon Tea” web 2015


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi Korie,

    Your blog post is great! It’s interesting to read about the way China and Crockery were displayed in the Victorian household as a way of indicating class. It’s something I didn’t notice when I first read Mary Barton. I also like the way you compare the etiquette at a normal Victorian tea party with the Mad Hatters Tea-Party. Looking at both interpretations creates a sense of humour. Again, this was something I didn’t think about before I read your blog. Overall, I really enjoyed reading this post.

    P.S. I like the use of primary evidence with the photograph taken from the British Library!


  3. Fascinating part connecting the tea with Alice in Wonderland! I never noticed how the delicacy of a tea party was being purposefully disregarded in that scene. I also agree with the good use of primary evidence from the museums.