A cup of tea anyone, made the 18th century way?

We’ve looked our favourite subject of hot chocolate, so now it’s time for a post about eighteenth-century tea drinking.

Two Ladies and an Officer Seated at Tea, c.1715; Dutch School
Two Ladies and an Officer Seated at Tea; Dutch School; Paintings Collection Victoria and Albert Museum, c.1715.

At the beginning of the 1700s, according to the Daily Courant of 1705, green tea was very popular, but it was to be served correctly i.e. with milk. Tea at that time was extremely expensive at 10 shillings per pound, in comparison with chocolate which sold at 3 shillings a pound; chocolate with added sugar was only 2 shillings and 6 pence a pound.

A Tea Party; Joseph van Aken
A Tea Party; Joseph van Aken; Manchester Art Gallery

There appear to have been two main types of tea on the market Bohe-Tea (black tea) which was often drunk to relieve colic pains and to aid the explanation of wind and green-tea which helped the suppression of urine and was more efficacious than sage, etc. The use of mineral water when making tea could cure-all ills – so we are told! So now you know!

Teatotalism by Edward Bird, c.1795
Teatotalism by Edward Bird, c.1795; Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

From the Domestic Management book of 1800, we have the following step by step guide to making the perfect cuppa.

As it frequently falls to upper maids and footmen to make tea apart, for company it is felt that a little know how to make it well, a little instruction is required.

The tea-pot should be of a size proportioned to the number of persons that are to be served and the size of the cups.

If six persons are to drink tea, the pot should hold as much as will fill nine cups. One tea-spoonful is sufficient for each person to have three cups of tea; which is the general quantity drunk by each. Six tea-spoons full is about half an ounce; there being 13 in one ounce.

These should be put into the pot, and boiling water poured on, till the pot is one-third full. It should thus stand a quarter of an hour, which will draw a good tincture.

A Lady Taking Tea; Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin
A Lady Taking Tea; Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin; Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

In the meantime, boiling water should be poured into the cups, to heat them; for unless the tea is served hot it is little better than slop. When the tea is sufficiently drawn, the teacups should be emptied. The pot filled with boiled water (not water that has been boiled but boiling).

The tincture of tea in the pot will make the whole sufficiently strong, and the boiling water added, will make the whole sufficiently hot. After filling the six cups, the pot will remain one-third full, as before, and will still draw the tea, and add fresh strength to it.

British School; Tea Service on a Tray; British School
Tea Service on a Tray; British School; Paintings Collection Victoria and Albert Museum

When the cups are returned, if the kettle is at hand (as it always should be), the cups should be washed with clean boiling water and emptied into the basin and not washed in the basin, into which the slop has been thrown.  After this, fill up the pot a second time, and pour it off immediately, and the second round of cups will be equally strong and hot, as the first. The tea, then in the pot left, will be also one-third of its contents, which is so to continue, till the cups are to be filled a third time.

Ladies at tea by Thomas Rowlandson.
Ladies at tea by Thomas Rowlandson. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The cups being a second time, returned and washed, pour more boiling water into the pot, so as to fill it two-thirds, and then, after filling the cups a third time, the pot will be quite empty, and the strength of the tea all served; whereas many, by pouring too much water on the leaves at last, will make the last round of tea very weak, and leave two or three cups of good tea in the pot, to be thrown away. By this mode of making tea, it will be all uniformly strong and all serve up hot.

Mrs Ellen Sharples by Rolinda Sharples, c.1814.
Mrs Ellen Sharples by Rolinda Sharples, c.1814. Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Should any of the company want a fourth, or fifth cup, another tea-spoonful of tea should be added to the pot, a little boiling water poured over it, and time allowed it to draw, or extract its strength, and the whole should be managed as before. It is the best way, and most agreeable to everyone, to send round the sugar and cream with the cup, and let each person take what he pleases.

If tea is made in an adjoining room and sent in, the best method is to put a tea-spoonful of tea for each person, into a pot that will contain as many cups as there are persons, and fill it up, letting it stand a quarter of an hour, or longer; and when it is to be served, pour as much tea from the pot as will fill up each cup one-third full, and fill it up from the kettle with boiling water. This will make the tea equally as good as if managed in the other way.

The Tea Garden; George Morland
The Tea Garden; George Morland; Tate

After all of that, we think we deserve a good strong cup of tea, made using a tea bag!

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Featured Image

Mercier, Philippe; A Girl with a Tea Cup; National Galleries of Scotland.

17 thoughts on “A cup of tea anyone, made the 18th century way?

  1. caeciliadance

    Those directions from 1800 sound quite complicated. I am intrigued also by how long they let the tea-leaves steep, in contrast to the generally recommended 3-5 mins you get now (at least with teabags).

    Do you know, by any chance, why novels used to refer to taking ‘a dish of tea’?

    Now I feel like making myself a pot of tea!


    1. Sarah Murden

      Not convinced we’d want to drink the tea it had been ‘stewed’ by today’s standard!! As we understand it, saucers were generally deeper than those we use today so perhaps more akin to a shallow dish (take a look at the painting of the old lady with her cat), and it was quite acceptable to pour your drink into the saucer as a means of cooling it more quickly. Enjoy your cuppa 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. discovered you through nerdy history girls – wonderful! am teaching a “life long learning” course for Simon Fraser Univ here in Vancouver this fall, on Samuel Johnson and his world and this posting will be a real asset. You will know his comment on it (in response to an attack on tea as an evil, degenerative substance). Johnson said:he is “a hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has, for twenty years, diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and, with tea, welcomes the morning.” and I”m so glad to have the details you gave — and the pictures and other links. thanks so much!


  2. artandarchitecturemainly

    Tea Service on a Tray (British School) and Mrs Ellen Sharples (Rolinda Sharples c1814) both showed how important the tea-drinking accoutrements were. Tea was expensive in its own right, so the porcelain, silver and trays had to be expensive as well. I inherited mum’s Russian samovar which is still beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. Richard Parsons

    >made using a tea bag!
    A pox on that! Tear open a tea bag and compare its contents, most likely swept off the floor, with a good grade of loose tea. You’ll start using a teapot, I’m sure. Nice article!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sarah Murden

      Fair comment, if we’re honest, we both prefer coffee – freshly ground of course! Glad you enjoyed the article though 🙂


    2. Here, hear! Teabags are awful and look horrid after use, like something one forgot to flush.

      Just get some good whole-leaf black tea (one doesn’t need a strainer). Gulabi Kalmi from Calcutta is good and costs $7-$8 per pound around here.. Warm the pot and the cups. Use one heaped teaspoon of tea per cup and fill the pot with boiling water (always use the right size pot). Wait five minutes (this part is lovely). Pour and add milk and sugar to taste.

      Refreshing and reviving.


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  6. pennyhampson2

    As a complete and unashamed tea addict, I thoroughly enjoyed your article. So glad I don’t have to go through all the faff that 18th century folk did, but once in a while I treat myself to loose-leaf tea.


    1. Sarah Murden

      Thank you so much, Penny. I do remember my mother making tea using loose-leaf – too much trouble for my liking, but she said it always tasted better 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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