The elaborate afternoon tea service found at County spots like Silver Tips Tea in Tarrytown and Kathleen’s Tea Room in Peekskill first became a regular social occasion among the affluent in 17th-century Great Britain, where tea initially had come from China. Due to the influence of Portugal’s Princess Catherine of Braganza—who became Britain’s Queen Consort after marrying King Charles II—the British East India Company took advantage of her popularizing tea drinking among the aristocracy. In 1664, they ordered 100 pounds of tea (the equivalent of about 22,000 bags!) to be imported to England.
Initially, tea was taxed heavily, so the upper class enjoyed it in upscale coffeehouses—which is where they often conducted their business—leading to coffeehouses becoming just as popular as ale houses. Tea parties became a popular pastime for upper-class women. Biscuits (“cookies” in America) were the accompanying snack of choice, because they were the easiest to eat without dirtying the ladies’ daintily gloved hands. The hostess’ servants would set up fine china and silver kettles for guests.
By the 1800s, afternoon tea had become a daily tradition in most homes. Tea became more accessible to the lower classes as well, being especially popular with men after a hard day’s work. For them, “high tea,” not afternoon tea, was a time to have a snack before a late supper, which was around 8 to 10 pm. Instead of the expensive, sugary biscuits, the lower classes ate hot food.