Afternoon tea has its roots going back to the 1800s, where it is thought to have been invented by Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford. Since during that time there were only two generally accepted meals throughout the day (one at the beginning and the other at the end), the Duchess found that a “sinking feeling” would become apparent, from hunger and fatigue. To combat this feeling, she decided that she’d invite some of her friends over for a light meal of tea and snacks. This began afternoon tea as a very exclusive meal to high society.
Afternoon tea was also enjoyed by the lower-middle class, but not nearly as often as people belonging to higher classes; long working schedules and a lack of money often prevented this meal from taking place.
After Duchess Anna began holding her afternoon tea and snacks as a daily ritual, the upper-class of Britain took hold and began offering their own afternoon teas. They would invite their friends to lounge around their gardens during the summer and drink tea, eat tiny cakes, enjoy finger sandwiches, and slather scones in cream and jam. The ritual was a slice of decadence, but was treated as more of a snack than a meal; it was only ever meant to fill the gap between lunch and dinner.
Britain during the 1800s was a place where women were expected to have rule of the house, while men were expected to work. Women would usually leave the house with a male escort, as they were considered far too delicate to be out on their own. Teahouses would serve tea to those with their escorts, but a woman without a man by her side would not be served. Therefore, many women decided to play out the ritual of afternoon tea within their own homes, still avoiding much contact with the outside world but still able to meet with her friends. Afternoon tea would often be served at 3:30pm.
Afternoon tea had very strict rules of etiquette, to the point where many people nowadays would question the need for them. However, they were followed near-religiously by the British, and a violation of etiquette during afternoon tea would be considered quite rude, indeed (see Afternoon Tea Etiquette).
Today, afternoon tea has taken quite a fall from where it previously stood. In Britain it is rarely served every day, even by the economic elite. This is due at least partially to the fact that women are no longer considered as delicate, and are allowed to go out and work without being subjected to social ridicule. Many women simply aren’t home during the time afternoon tea is served, and the rush of life itself often robs people of the time to conduct it even when not at work. Thus, it has become a tradition that is rarely practiced except on weekends, and even then only by the especially eager. Special occasions, however, will often still involve an afternoon tea.