As someone who has drunk a lot of tea in my life I can’t say that I had given a lot of thought to the history behind the drink. I recently came across an interesting article on the history of tea and gender which argued that the drink and the subsequent social event the surrounded tea was a women’s sphere – particularly when contrasted with the masculine coffee shop.
The paintings below show elements of the gendering of ‘tea’.
The Tea Party Frederic Soulacroix (1858-1933)
This image shows women of a certain class using tea as a social event. Here the immaculately dressed women are sharing in discussion (perhaps of gossip as the women in blue is hiding behind her fan – maybe embarrassed). The use of ‘tea’ for women’s socialisation is something comparable to the way coffee houses were scenes for male socialisation. Taking tea allowed women to partake in a social activity that was considered appropriate to their gender.
You can pick out the china ware in this painting. Gray argues that one of the reasons tea became linked to women and the home was due to the different elements of table ware involved in preparing tea,for example, the teapot, teacups, saucers, tongs, milk jug. This variety of items prohibited easy use within public venues but lent itself to use within the home. Here, you can see the teapot, saucers and teacups which are beautifully decorated, indicating the status of the women in the picture.
Five O’Clock Tea Julius LeBlanc Stewart (1855 – 1919)
This painting depicts a larger gathering than the one above and shows not just women but also men and children. On the table you can see a hint of the variety of table ware involved in the event.
You get a sense of ‘occasion’ from this image – the flowers, the clothing, the number of people involved indicate that this is not just a simple meal, but a special occasion. You can see through the positioning of the women in the painting that they are dominating the scene -men are present, but the women are the key. This is evidence that tea allowed women to demonstrate and exert control in the home. By pouring tea, women were showing that they had control within their home as Annie Gray said ‘both sexes partook of tea, but it was women who wielded the teapot’.
For those interested in reading more about tea visit