Afternoon Tea in The Gilded Age ~ La Belle Époque

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January is HOT TEA month.  To ring in the New Year, afternoon tea aficionados are in for a special treat for Julian Fellowes, who gave us Downton Abbey, launches his new TV series on HBO called The Gilded Age.  Pour yourself a good cup of your favorite tea and brush up the P’s and Q’s of the era.

La Belle Époque, 1880-1914,”the beautiful era” as known to the French, was a gilded age, bringing with it great opulence coinciding with the demise of the old-fashioned aristocracy and traditional ways.

Dominated by a society indulging in the refinements of luxurious elegance, the era was defined by women unburdened with financial constraints who were able to gratify themselves with extravagant home entertaining and fin-de-siècle esthetics. The arts, in turn, captured glimpses of these vignettes, depicting fashionable women of the day on canvas.

The salons, with artists like Tissot, Boldini and Tanoux, showcased the great couturiers Charles Frederick Worth and Jacques Douccet’s wondrous jacquard woven silks, moirés, satins, laces and velvets along with the sophisticated Paul Poiret’s brilliant colors. With the Eiffel Tower, Marcel Proust, automobiles and airplanes, and Ravel and Debussy echoing in the grand concert halls, it was an age being drawn to new heights and new freedoms. Afternoon Tea provided the perfect setting to demonstrate the new freedom advancing in women’s dress for the sophisticated elite.

Tea gowns were constructed in several segments, allowing the hostess to change from the lingerie-inspired overtops to the more revealing off-the-shoulder, lower cut silhouette for the evening hours. Fabrics ranged from elaborate gowns with fanciful handwork of embroidery, beading and smocking to the delicate white handkerchief linens accented with pastels and appliqué.

Since Afternoon Teas were mostly attended by family and close friends, the hostess’ tea gown was often un-corseted for the first time in centuries, introducing the casual form of dress our society has adopted to the present day.

Supported by the popularity of Afternoon Tea, tearooms began to flourish across two continents. The Ritz in London, England was the first establishment to allow ladies to enter unescorted by men to indulge in Afternoon Tea.

The fashions, both worn and on the table, complimented the Victorian era from which they were born. The gowns were accessorized with magnificently embellished gloves, parasols, fabulous hats and small handbags. The equipage was equally as ornamental in lavish design.

The rituals, protocols and nuances of afternoon tea etiquette were not for the faint of heart.  As I have said in writing for four decades, etiquette, in general, has always been the unspoken language of communication.  During the gilded age where the privileged, “ old” money set was now met in social settings with the “new”, the arrivistes, who were striving for their equal place, ever more so during afternoon tea, could the slightest faux pas be a dead give away as to one’s social class.

Rules of Etiquette

A few of the real rules of etiquette that remain to this modern day of the 21st century as excerpted from Afternoon Tea~ Tips, Terms and Traditions © Ellen Easton

Where to place one’s teacup and saucer (ditto coffee cup): When seated at a table one’s teacup and saucer is placed to the right of a place setting.  The saucer never leaves the table. Only the teacup is raised.

When seated at a low table or salon setting, the saucer and teacup remains in one’s lap until ready to sip the tea.  At such time, the saucer and teacup are raised together as to avoid any of the liquid from dripping.  The same would apply if standing at a reception tea. If you are at a buffet tea hold the tea saucer in your lap with your left hand and hold the teacup in your right hand. When not in use, place the teacup back in the tea saucer and hold it in your lap.

How to hold one’s teacup:  Never loops one’s fingers through the handle of the teacup.  One pinches the handle with one’s thumb in front and one’s index, middle and optionally, ring finger on the back of the tea cup.  One’s pinkie or little finger never touches the teacup.  One’s little finger is curled slightly inward or gracefully ajar, hence the expression “ pinkies up”.  Pinkies -up does not mean one sticks one’s finger up in the air.

Stirring Tea and Spoon Placement: Do not stir your tea with your teaspoon in sweeping circular motions. Place your teaspoon at the six o’clock position and softly fold the liquid towards the twelve o’clock position two or three times.

Never leave your teaspoon in your teacup. When not in use, place your teaspoon on the right side of the tea saucer.

Never wave or hold your teacup in the air. When not in use place the teacup back into the tea saucer.

How To Eat A Scone: Again, contrary to recent “experts” advice (now I understand how rumors get started!), it is not only improper to slice a scone, in its ENTIRETY horizontally to be slathered in jam and cream, it is considered very common behavior! Although some establishments will serve a sliced scone pre-prepared with jam and cream, this is merely a gimmick introduced to save time (It may now be ”acceptable” but it will never be correct). A hostess should instruct and insist that the scones, for large functions or buffets, be made smaller into bite size ”standing room” size.

The correct manner in which one eats a scone is the same manner in which one eats a dinner roll. Simply break off a bite-size piece, place it on your plate, and then apply, with your bread and butter knife, the jam and cream. A fork is not used to eat a scone. Please, no dipping!

See video:


Afternoon Tea or Low Tea vs. High Tea: Please do not refer to your afternoon tea as a high tea. Remember, a high tea is served in the late afternoon or early evening (5 PM to 7 PM), taking the place of dinner. Served at a “high” table with seated place settings. The foods are heartier and consist of salads, one or two hot dishes, pot pies, cold chicken, sliced meats, cakes, fruit tarts, custards, and fresh fruits. The tea may be served hot or iced. The addition of any supper dish would be appropriate.

Napkin Placement When Dining: Contrary to recent “experts” advice, there is never a proper moment for one to place one’s napkin on a chair. The proper protocol when excusing oneself from the table whether during or after a dining experience, is to gently place one’s napkin to the left side of your place setting. This rule is not negotiable for the simple reason if one’s napkin were soiled it could damage the seat covering, damage that may be either costly to repair or irreplaceable. While the risk for soiling a cloth also exists, the cloth can be laundered with relative ease.  One’s clothes may also be soiled and in turn, when seated can transfer foods which may also damage the furniture.

Upon completion of a dining experience, a napkin folded with a crease and placed to the left side of your place setting indicates to your host or hostess that you wish to be invited back.   Note: on the completion of a dining experience if the napkin was placed with no crease this indicated to the host/hostess that one did not wish to receive another invitation, thus sparing any embarrassment to either party.  The unspoken language of etiquette!

Further articles of interest:

A Proper Afternoon Tea Individual Place Setting

Table Manners and Proper Settings 

The Lost Art of Social Civility

You Are Invited- How to be a Good Host or Guest


Text and Photos 2000- 2022 ©Ellen Easton 


  • Ellen Easton

    Ellen Easton, author of Afternoon Tea~Tips, Terms and Traditions(RED WAGON PRESS), an afternoon tea authority, lifestyle and etiquette industry leader, keynote speaker and product spokesperson, is a hospitality, design, and retail consultant whose clients have included the Waldorf=Astoria, the Plaza and Bergdorf Goodman. Easton’s family traces their tea roots to the early 1800s, when ancestors first introduced tea plants from India and China to the Colony of Ceylon, thus building one of the largest and best cultivated teas estates on the island.

5 Responses

  1. Tracy says:

    Ellen’s article is a real treat …….. she provided a very discriptive window into a bygone era where the pleasures and efforts that went into a social ritual like an afternoon tea were raised to an art form. We should all indulge and try stepping back in time occasionally to experience the memeorable experience of just that ……… afternoon tea.

  2. Mercedes Serralles says:

    Looking forward to watching the series Ellen so well describes the ambience and entourage!
    Just learned that you fold tea not stir it in your cup. Infinite information on etiquete and tea.
    Thank you Ellen Once again for making it magic

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