Expert Commentary: Tea Party Etiquette


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.  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.

            Today, in an Authentic English Tea Party we still have high and low tea or also called full and light tea.   Muffins or sweets are only served at a low tea.  There are three courses served in a high tea; scones or muffins, tea sandwiches, and sweets.  They are served in this order, if a tiered tray is being used, the scones would be in top, tea sandwiches in the middle, and sweets on the bottom.  Butter, jam, and a thick clotted cream are used as condiments for your scones and muffins.   These are to be put in your plate from the serving jars or bowls.  Break off a bite-size piece of the scone or muffin and then dab a small amount of the condiment of your choice from your plate.  Never break the muffin in half, butter it and then bring it to your mouth to take a bite.

            Tea sandwiches can be anything from cucumber sandwiches to pimento cheese or chicken salad.  They are just on small pieces of bread or bread that has been cut to small size.  Take bites of the tiny sandwiches.  Never shove the whole thing in your mouth, even though they are small.  The sweets are the fun part.  They can be cupcakes, par fours, fudge, or candy.

            To prepare your tea you will need cubed sugar and milk.  Milk is used instead of cream because cream masks the taste of the tea.  You may serve yourself the cubed sugar with the tongs available, making sure that you do not accidentally dip the tongs into your tea.  When stirring your tea, don’t make noises by clinking the sides if the cup while stirring.  Gently swish the tea back and forth.  Never leave the spoon in the cup and don’t sip your tea from the spoon.  Quietly place your spoon in the saucer, behind the cup, on the right hand side.

            Contrary to popular belief, the pinky finger should not be extended when drinking tea.  When I teach tea party etiquette to my students, I always tell them that they do not have to do it, but if they want to pretend and stick their pinky out for play, that is just fine.  Although, this gesture should be eliminated at adult tea parties.

            It's nearly the first day of spring and a tea party is a great way to celebrate the season.  Tea parties are not just for kids, adult tea parties can be fun too.  So dust off your hats and gloves and enjoy a garden tea party this spring.