Heath, Mary E. (Illinois Wesleyan University)
Constructing the Past: Vol. 13: Iss. 1, Article 1 (2012)
“Etiquette [was] that rule of conduct which [was] recognized by polite society, and to which all who [desired] to be admitted into fashionable circles [had to] submit.” English Victorian women, as this advice from 1856 in A Manual of Etiquette For Ladies suggested, were to “give especial heed to the rules of etiquette. Their position in society [demanded] this.” This was life for middle class women in Victorian England. Propriety was everything, and nothing was more proper than an English cup of tea. With the help of etiquette books, women regulated the home through rituals such as tea parties, visiting days, and tea conversation. Yet while tea ritualization helped define and reinforce middle class women’s social expectations and domestic duties, tea customs also halted women’s progress.
Tea was not women’s chosen domain; rather, their adoption of the tea ritual was the result of male subordination. Coffee and tea were introduced to England as social beverages at approximately the same time. The first coffee house was established in Oxford in 1654. Just ten years later, Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese bride of King Charles II, reintroduced the medicinally used tea to the English court as an enjoyable beverage. Women, legally excluded from coffee houses, copied court society, and tea was born as women’s drink. Though tea culture would develop over the next two hundred years, the formal tea party was born out of the specific needs of Victorian society.