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Did Colonial Boston Enjoy High Tea?

English Women Drinking Tea After Dinner (coloured engraving)
English Women Drinking Tea After Dinner coloured engraving by French School

Hostesses in the fine homes of Beacon Street certainly had all the accoutrements for serving tea in colonial Boston but the term “high tea” would not come into use for another 100 years. Even then, upper class Bostonians did not refer to their teatime by using such a crude term.

High tea was something the Victorian lower class ate when returning home at night from a long day of hard work in a factory or mine. It was a hearty meal accompanied by a pot of tea taken at a kitchen table – if you were fortunate enough to have such a piece of furniture.

Everything was placed on the table, family style, and dishes were passed from person to person. The menu included hot or cold hearty and traditional foods such as meat pies, Welsh rarebit, sausage, cold meats, breads, cheese, jam, butter, relishes, desserts, fruits, and tea. High tea was also called “meat tea,” because meat was usually served.

In the days leading up to the 1773 Boston Tea Rebellion, tea would have been enjoyed in the parlors of Boston and London with only milk and sugar. Sometimes toast or bread was added in the Regency period. But scones, cakes, curds, crumpets and the like would not appear on the tea table until the mid-1800s.

The term “high tea” is still often misused by those who like to gild afternoon tea to make it seem exclusive and refined. Consequently, both consumers and tea venues often mistakenly label an event that should be simply called tea or afternoon tea.

As pleasant as it is to host a contemporary tea at home, going out to tea is still one of life’s most delightful pastimes. A hotel lounge or tearoom may use various titles to describe its tea offerings. Menus offer Afternoon Tea, Cream Tea, Light Tea, Full Tea, and Royal Tea. And when you encounter hotels and tea rooms offering High Tea, you can be sure they mean Afternoon Tea. 

Don’t worry what they call it as long as they can make a good scone and a proper cup of tea!

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Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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