Russian Tea (1904) ★★★★★

In 2007 I participated in a summer youth program at Upper Canada Village. As part of the program, I was required to pick a subject to research through my hands-on activities and the village's archives. At the end of the program, I had to give a short presentation on my topic. I chose to research something quintessentially Victorian - afternoon tea. Here is what I presented:

A Brief History of Tea in the Western World
Tea was introducted into England in 1657 through the popularity it had in France and Holland. Tea didn't reach Canada until 1715, according to the records of the Hudson Bay Company.

Before tea became ingrained into English society, it was considered a sin by the Clergy because it came from a heathen country. It concerned doctors, who thought the drink would make people ill, and it was hated by brewers because they were afraid it would replace ale - which it ultimately did. In the 1840s, tea became more popular than ale, the previous national drink of England. It seems funny that tea, first considered bad for one's health, came to be considered a "cure-all". In the Victorian age, the call for abstinance from alcohol also increased the popularity of tea, and therefore, according to Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, tea was considered "the cup that cheers but not inebriates".

At first it was only men who partook in the consumption of tea, however, in 1717 a teahouse for women only was opened. In the 1600s and 1700s, tea consumption was limited to the upper class because of its extremely high price. By 1846 tea became more readily consumed because of the lowered prices due to the Free Trade agreement. Before then, pioneers often resorted to using leaves, roots, and berries of plants as a substitute for tea.

Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, is considered the "creator" of the tradition of afternoon tea. She invited friends for an afternoon meal which consisted of small cakes, sandwiches, sweets, and tea. This practice became popular with her friends and eventually tea became an elaborate occassion that could sometimes be considered a whole meal.

In the 1860s, afternoon tea was necessary due to Queen Victoria's movement of supper time from 3 or 4 pm to 7:30 pm. An afternoon snack sustained the people until supper time. Queen Victoria also helped to popularize the consumtion of tea, as one of the first things she did when she was queen was drink a cup of tea.

Proper Teatime Etiquette and Customs 

As the popularity of tea increased, a social etiquette grew up around it. For example, if you wished to host an "at home" tea, you must not owe any social calls. And when the tea was over, you owed a call to everyone who attended. This is where the practice of leaving calling cards was useful - so that hostesses could remember who they needed to visit.

The clothes one wore to tea were also dictated by a strict etiquette. An ordinary woman, who would not own many dresses, could simply wear an afternoon tea frock. However, a woman of society had to choose between a carriage dress (if going by horse and carriage), a morning dress, a walking dress, or a visiting dress (if going on foot).

A successful tea was served sometime between three and five in the afternoon and consisted of three courses: brewed tea, small crustless sandwiches, and tarts or sweets. The only cutlery that was used were teaspoons, dessert forks and knives, and serving pieces. Tea was served in the dining room as a buffet or the drawing room on small tables. Teatime conversation was kept polite and trivial in nature. Politics, religion, and gossip were not discussed.

Gentlemen were not absent at tea and they were obliged to assist the ladies by passing around refreshments. Teatime was also a time for ladies to show off their musical talent, and often the hostess provided a musical recital.

Types of Afternoon Tea 

Tea can be divided into four categories: At Home, Five O'Clock Tea, High Tea, or Kettledrum.

An at home tea was held on a specific day of the week or month and the hostess gave up the entire afternoon to entertaining. According to Mrs. Beeton's Every-Day Cookery and Housekeeping Book, at an At Home in the summer one could expect to dine on salmon sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches, salad sandwiches, bread and butter, madeira cake, sponge cake, small almond cakes, petits fours, small fancy cakes, strawberries and cream, tea, coffee, lemonade, and claret cup. In the winter one could expect sardine sandwiches, chicken and ham sandwiches, foie gras sandwiches, bread and butter, pound cake, sponge cake, macaroons, ratafias, petits fours, fancy biscuits, tea, coffe, and wine.

Five O'Clock Tea was simply a light snack before supper. Food was simple as well, consisting of dry biscuits, fancy bread and butter sandwiches, and occassionally some cake or fresh fruit. In the winter a pot of bouillon often replaced the tea.

High Teas were tea-dinners that originated from the British working class and were popular among Ontario's working class as well. High tea began as a cup of tea with the leftovers from the main midday meal but evolved to become a formal and elaborate supper. High tea was characterized by the various selections of meat dishes and wine was the main drink with coffee and tea offered on a sideboard. A Toronto cookbook offers these menus for high teas: tea, coffee, chocolate biscuits, oyster sandwiches, chicken salad, cold tongue, cake and preserves, ice cream and cake later in the evening or tea, coffee, chocolate, escalloped; or another menu: fried oysters, muffins, sliced turkey and ham, cold biscuits, sardines and sliced lemons, thin slices of bread rolled, sliced pressed meats, cake in variety. High teas were also later than other teas, taking place between 6 and 8 pm.

Kettledrums were the Victorian version of a cocktail party. It was an elaborate five o'clock tea at which was served fancy sandwiches, small cakes, ices, and fruit along with tea and coffee. The word "kettledrum" most likely comes from kettle - for the vessel in which tea is prepared - and drum - an old synonym for a large evening party.

Within a village, tea would be consumed in many places, including farmhouses and the pastor's house. The pastor's wife would entertain women from the church's congress. Upper class ladies had both the time and funds to dedicate to tea. Although tea required a lot of time and money, farm wives or those living a rural lifestyle could sometimes spare a moment for a cup of tea with a visitor between chores or a sit down tea on Sunday, when no work was done anyway.

For a more detailed insight into tea, check out The Little Tea Book, a 1903 publication compiled by Arthur Gray. And now, as a reward for reading all of that, here is a 1904 recipe for Russian Tea!

Original Recipe:

The Verdict: 
It's tea with lemon. It's good. Mr. Man even said he might put lemon in his tea from now on (he made earl grey and really liked the lemon with it).

Modernized Recipe: 

No need for a modernized recipe here.

Anje graduated with a Honours Bachelors degree in History with a minor in Museum Studies. She currently lives and works in Japan's least populous prefecture as an assistant English teacher.


  1. I loved reading this...very interesting. My hubby's family is Russian and this is how they all have their tea, weak with lemon. I love that this is a 'recipe' too. I have an old cookbook that has recipes for men and kids and one is toast...always makes me laugh!

    1. Well I'm glad to know my recipe was legit! ;)

      I did a quick search on the Feeding America archives and there are a surprising number of recipes for toast! Interestingly many of them call for soaking the toast in milk or water first. It does make some sense though, considering the first toasters didn't appear until the late 19th/early 20th century.

  2. I just found your blog and I love it!! I can't wait to read more. I love learning about the history of food.

    For fun, I've cooked a few things from the New Galt Cookbook that's posted in the National Archives of Canada website but otherwise I don't have a lot of access to old recipes. Until now!

    Keep doing what you're doing :)

    1. Thank you!
      I didn't know about the New Galt Cook Book, so now I've added it to my resources section. It's especially interesting to me, because I live near to "Galt", which is known as Cambridge today.

  3. Vintage Victorian Afternoon Tea... It may not be as elaborate as it was in the past but it remains a fascinating thing. I love tea and I'm glad I found your blog because this really answered some of my curiosities regarding the afternoon practice. Love it! Thanks for the info... will be reading more...