The Duchess Who Helped Make Tea Sandwiches A Long-Lasting Tradition

Some food traditions are so embedded in our cultural norms that it's difficult to grasp that they weren't always part of the collective psyche. Things like firing up the grille on the Fourth of July or roasting a turkey on Thanksgiving. It's just what you do. In Great Britain, one of those standing traditions is a daily ritual — afternoon tea. It's something we play at in the U.S., hosting tea parties with our dolls as children and celebrating special occasions with afternoon tea served in an elegant setting, but it's not a regular occurrence. In England, it's quite the opposite. Almost everyone breaks for tea daily, usually in the late afternoon around 4 p.m. But why?

It all goes back to the mid-20th century when one of Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting complained about feeling a little peckish each day between lunch and dinner. According to Teacups & Tales, Anna Maria Stanhope, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, described experiencing a "sinking feeling" late in the afternoon. With dinner still hours away, the duchess began requesting service of a light snack — finger sandwiches or biscuits — in her dressing room. She was so delighted with the little respite, she began inviting friends to join her, turning her daily bite into a social event. Queen Victoria eventually caught wind of the daily gatherings and decided to host her own daily afternoon tea.

Tea time today

The Duchess of Bedford's afternoon tea began as a modest affair but, according to Teacups & Tales, the practice quickly caught on among Britain's upper crust, eventually incorporating scones, clotted cream, and cakes into the presentation. Today, classic British afternoon tea still centers on crustless finger sandwiches with traditional fillings like fresh cucumbers, egg salad with watercress, smoked salmon with cream cheese, ham and mustard, and coronation chicken, according to The Afternoon Tea. But let's be honest, most of us have our eye on the secondary courses — warm scones with jam, sweet teacakes, and delightfully whimsical petit-fours (via BBC Good Food).

Even the late Queen Elizabeth II had a fondness for the sweeter side of afternoon tea — at least the sweeter sandwiches. In 2022, the queen's one-time personal chef, Darren McGrady, shared Her Majesty's favorite tea sandwiches with My London. "The Queen was served jam pennies in the nursery as a little girl and she's had them for afternoon tea ever since," McGrady said before going on to describe the sweet finger food — cookie cutter-trimmed round sandwiches spread with strawberry jam and a touch of butter. Her other favorites? Cucumber sandwiches (thin cucumber strips served with cream cheese and spearmint) and cheese and tomato sandwiches (seedless tomato slices, grated cheese, and salted butter).