Post written by Linda Pedro, contributing author, What Jane Austen Didn’t Tell Us!
It is common for characters in Jane Austen’s novels to “take tea.” But the Regency practice was a far cry from today’s elaborate afternoon ritual featuring 3-tiered stands filled with finger sandwiches, scones and sweets. Taking tea often meant nothing more than drinking the beverage, by itself, some hours after the evening meal or with visitors in the afternoon. Buttered bread might be served, or a piece of cake.
The exotic drink from China was a costly indulgence of the ultra wealthy when it first arrived in England around 1657. Widely available by the early 1700s, its popularity exploded among all classes, fueled by its fashionable cachet and occasional affordability. But during Austen’s lifetime it was a luxury item, carefully rationed, even by those who could afford it. The duty and excise tax on tea was as high as 119% in 1784. To safeguard her purchase, the mistress of a house locked her loose tea leaves in a canister called a tea caddy and often kept the key herself, lest servants help themselves to a precious spoonful or two.
A vigorous black market served this growing demand and high pricing. Smuggling was rife. Servants made money selling the household’s used tea leaves to dealers, who dyed them for resale. Some dealers extended their stock by mixing used tea leaves with floor scraps, crushed twigs and leaves, colored with molasses, clay, sheep dung and toxic ferrous sulfate. This “smouch,” as it was known, was sold as tea to unsuspecting customers. Although the use of additives was outlawed in 1725, the practice continued into the 19th century. Fortunately, Jane Austen herself enjoyed selecting tea at the reputable Twinings when she visited London.