Milk or water first? Tea in the 18th century

Tea, arguably Britain’s favourite beverage, reached England in the mid-17th century. At first, only the rich could afford to drink tea.

But the drink made its way to coffee houses and tea gardens in London, and soon there was a national clamour for tea. When the government raised taxes on tea in the mid-18th century, tea smugglers took advantage to sell tea at low prices in England.

As more and more people began to enjoy tea, a tea culture began to develop in the country. Finally, taxes on tea were slashed in 1784 and tea consumption boomed.

Tea and the class difference

Even as tea became a significant part of daily lives of people across different strata of society, there were stark differences in tea rituals of the upper and middle classes.

These were a reflection of British society at the time. Snobbery prevailed, and the differences in dressing, language, food preferences and even tea consumption habits were important class markers.

Of tea pots and tea chests

The wealthy families kept their tea locked in special tea chests, and purchased expensive tea ware, especially Chinese porcelain. Hosting afternoon tea became an important social occasion to show off wealth and collections of magnificent tea sets.      

For the middle class, on the other hand, tea was a simpler affair. It was only much later, when ceramic and cutlery production became cheaper, that they could spread out elaborate sets for tea time.

Milk in first or no?

What should you add first- milk or tea? This was a much-debated question at the time.

It was widely reported in periodicals and essays that pouring milk in first was rather “bourgeois”. For instance, nannies and governesses to wealthy employers generally poured milk first while having tea. But in their employers’ drawing rooms, tea was poured in first.

While there is no clear reason why or how this distinction began, this practice in the pouring of tea was widely-noted among the essayists and writers of the time as something perhaps a bit peculiar. The milk-in-first people were even referred to as “miffy” in some private circles.

This practice continued well into the 20th century, where people sneered at those who poured in milk first, followed by the tea.  

In today’s Britain, most people use tea bags dipped in hot water, and milk is added later.