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7 Highlights from a 19th Century Book of Sample Love Letters

Advice books in the 19th century had awfully long titles. Take, for example, the subject of this article, The fashionable American letter writer; or, The art of polite correspondence. Containing a variety of plain and elegant letters on business, love, courtship, marriage, relationship, friendship, &c. With forms of complimentary cards. To the whole is prefixed, directions for letter writing, and rules for composition.

Phew. At least it's thorough.

The book provides advice in the form of example letters for all sorts of situations. But it is the many matters of the heart that come across as particularly dated and worthy of unraveling more than a century and a half later. Let's take a look at some of the more stilted professions of adoration.

1. "Letter from a Gentleman to a Lady, disclosing his passion"

Madam,

Those only who have suffered them can tell the unhappy moments of hesitating uncertainty which attend the formation of a resolution to declare the sentiments of affection; I, who have felt their greatest and most acute torments, could not, previous to my experience, have formed the remotest idea of their severity. Every one of those qualities in you which claim my admiration, increased my diffidence, by showing the great risk I run in venturing, perhaps before my affectionate assiduities have made the desired impression on your mind, to make a declaration of the ardent passion I have long since felt for you.

"Acute torments" at the mere prospect of simply telling a girl you fancy her does not speak well of your amorous experience or of your constitution, but I guess if you gussy it up with enough dependent clauses it reads more romantic.

My family connexions (sic) are so well known to you, that I need say nothing of them...

#humblebrag.

He ends the letter with a plea that if his romantic intentions should fall on deaf ears he hopes they can still be friends. A modern sentiment if ever there was one.

The Answer

Sir,

I take the earliest opportunity of acknowledging the receipt of your letter, and the obligations I feel to you for the sentiments expressed in it; and assure you, that whatever may be the event of your solicitations in another quarter, the sentiments of friendship I feel, from a long acquaintance with you, will not be in any manner altered.

She sounds pretty committed to the idea of preserving "the sentiments of friendship," which rarely bodes well romantically.

There are many points besides mere personal regard to be considered; these I must refer to the superior knowledge of my father and brother; and if the result of their inquiries is such as my presentiments suggest, I have no doubt my happiness will be attended to by permission to decide for myself.

Naturally, a female perspective can't be trusted to evaluate a potential suitor, but oh, to be given permission to decide for herself!

At all events, I shall never cease to feel obliged by a preference in itself sufficiently flattering, and rendered still more so by the handsome manner in which it is expressed; and I hope, if my parents should see cause to decline the proposed favour of your alliance, it will not produce such disunion between our families, as to deprive us of friends, who possess a great portion of our esteem and regard.

Well, if nothing else, she likes that he likes her. That's something. And, of course, they will always be "friends."

2. "From a Gentleman to a Young Lady of superior fortune"

This one opens with a similar overstatement of flattery sprinkled with unworthiness. But the highlight comes when this gentleman concedes to his would-be sugar momma that:

Were our circumstances reversed, I should hardly take to myself the credit of doing a generous action, in overlooking the consideration of wealth, and making you an unreserved tender of my hand and fortune.

At least he's honest.

In her reply, she scolds him for assuming a lady's heart will be swayed or stayed by disparity of fortune, but demurs that any decision on the matter should be left up to her father.

3. "From a Gentleman of some fortune, who had seen a Lady in public, to her mother"

He gets to the heart of the matter eventually, but it's the opening paragraph that's worth considering:

I shall be very happy if you are not altogether unacquainted with the name which is at the bottom of this letter, since that will prevent me the necessity of saying some things concerning myself, which had better be heard from others. Hoping that it may be so, I shall not trouble you on that head; but only say, that I have the honour to be of a family not mean, and not wholly without fortune.

I think that's 19th century speak for "Do you know who I am?!"

4. "From a Widow to a Young Gentleman, rejecting his suit"

You are, by your account, two and twenty. I am, by mine, six and forty; you are too young to know the duties of a father. I have a son who is seventeen, and consequently too old to learn the duties of a son from one so little senior to himself.

This sounds like reasonable grounds for rejection—or for a sitcom plot—but our widow is savvy enough to question the motives of a 22-year-old looking to shack up with someone more than double his age. 

[W]hen you can convince me that in point of age, fortune, and morals, you are such a person as I can, without reproach, rake for a husband, and admit as a guardian to my children, I shall cease to think, as I now candidly confess I do, that motives far from honourable, or disinterested love, have influence your application.

Those implied motives: gold-digging.

5. "From a Young Lady, to a Gentleman that courted her whom she could not esteem, but was forced by her Parents to receive his visits, and think on none else for her Husband"

I mean, how many times do you find yourself in this situation? Am I right, ladies?

You may have observed, in the long conversations we have had at those times that we were left together, that some secret hung upon my mind. I was obliged to an ambiguous behaviour, and durst not reveal myself further, because my mother, from a closet near the place where we sat, could both see and hear our conversation. I have strict commands from both my parents to receive you, and am undone for ever, except you will be so kind and generous as to refuse me. Consider, sir, the misery of bestowing yourself upon one who can have no prospect of happiness but from your death.

If admitting that any sign of affection was merely for your parents' benefit doesn't work, try telling him that a marriage would make you wish he was dead. But you know, in a way that makes it sound like you're just looking out for his feelings.

I know it is dreadful enough to a man of your sense to expect nothing but forced civilities in return for tender endearments, and cold esteem for undeserved love. if you will, on this occasion, let reason take the place of passion, I doubt not but fate has in store for you some worthier object of your affection, in recompense of your goodness to the only woman that could be insensible of your merit.

"It's not you, it's me." "I just don't think I have anything to give at this point." "You deserve someone who can really appreciate you."

6. "From a Young Lady to a Gentleman, complaining of indifference"

You don't interrupt a lady when she is coming at you with a string of possibly rhetorical questions. Take it away from the top of the accusations:

Did I not give you my promise to be yours, and had you no other cause for soliciting it than merely to gratify your vanity? A brutal gratification indeed, to triumph over the weakness of a woman, whose greatest fault was, that she loved you. I say loved you; for it was in consequence of that passion, I first contended to become yours. Has your conduct, sir, been consistent with my submission, or with your own solemn professions? Is it consistent with the character of a gentleman, first to obtain a woman’s consent, and afterwards brag that he had discarded her, and found one more agreeable to his wishes? Do not equivocate; I have too convincing proofs your insincerity; I saw you yesterday walking with Miss Benton, and am informed that you have promised marriage to her. Whatever you may think, sir, I have a spirit of disdain, and even resentment, equal to your ingratitude, and can treat the wretch with a proper indifference, who can make so slight a matter of the most solemn promises. Miss Benton may be your wife, but she will receive into her arms a perjured husband nor can ever the superstructure be laying, which is built on such a foundation.

And now to really drive it home:

I leave you to the stings of your own conscience.

The Gentleman's Answer

Predictably, he denies it all:

My dear, I am not what you have represented; I am neither false nor perjured; I never proposed marriage to Miss Benton; I never designed it: and my sole reason for walking with her was, that I had been on a visit to her brother, whom you know is my attorney.

Your attorney's sister, eh? We can't know if he's telling the truth, but he does dive pretty quickly into a diversion tactic:

[T]o convince you of my sincerity, I beg that the day of marriage be next week.

Ah, the old elope-to-win-her-back strategy. And if that still doesn't work, he closes with some air-tight logic:

I have sent a small parcel by the bearer, which I hope you will accept as convincing proof of my integrity.

7. "From a Gentleman to a Lady, whom he accuses of Inconstancy"

You should not suppose, if lovers have lost their sight, that their senses are all banished; and if I refuse to believe my eyes when they show me your inconstancy, you must not wonder that I cannot stop my ears against the accounts of it.

That is a genuinely strong burn.

Pray let us understand one another properly; for I am afraid we are deceiving ourselves all this while. Am I a person whom you esteem, whose fortune you do not despise, and whose pretensions you encourage; or am I a troublesome coxcomb, who fancy myself particularly received by a woman who only laughs at me?

This question feels biased.

He takes issue, it seems, with her "universal coquetry in public" by daring to talk to other men, but ends the letter by imploring that she "not mistake what is the effect of the distraction of my heart, for want of respect for you."

Let's see how she takes it...

The Answer

But although I am really unhappy to find you are so, and the more to find myself to be the occasion, I can hardly impute the unkindness and incivility of your letter to the single cause you would have me.

She seems offended by his attack on her character. Imagine that. She goes one to deny any intentional wrongdoing but concedes:

I did not know that the gaiety of my temper gave you uneasiness; and you ought to have told me of it with less severity. If I am particular in it, I am afraid it is a fault in my natural disposition; but I would have taken some pains to get the better of that, if I had known it was disagreeable to you.

This is a great non-apology. An "I'm sorry if my naturally vivacious and appealing personality threatens you" of sorts. I like it. You go, hypothetical 1839 lady!

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Food
The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
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Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
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Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
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Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
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Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
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Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
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In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
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Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
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Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

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The Origins of 5 International Food Staples

Food is more than fuel. Cuisine and culture are so thoroughly intertwined that many people automatically equate tomatoes with Italy and potatoes with Ireland. Yet a thousand years ago those dietary staples were unheard of in Europe. How did they get to be so ubiquitous there—and beyond?

1. TOMATOES

For years, the wonderful fruit that’s now synonymous with Italy was mostly ignored there. Native to South America and likely cultivated in Central America, tomatoes were introduced to Italy by Spanish explorers during the 1500s. Shortly thereafter, widespread misconceptions about the newcomers took root. In part due to their watery complexion, it was inaccurately thought that eating tomatoes could cause severe digestive problems. Before the 18th century, the plants were mainly cultivated for ornamental purposes. Tomato-based sauce recipes wouldn’t start appearing in present-day Italy until 1692 (although even those recipes were more like a salsa or relish than a sauce). Over the next 150 years, tomato products slowly spread throughout the peninsula, thanks in no small part to the agreeable Mediterranean climate. By 1773, some cooks had taken to stuffing tomatoes with rice or veal. In Naples, the fruits were sometimes chopped up and placed onto flatbread—the beginnings of modern pizza. But what turned the humble tomato into a national icon was the canning industry. Within Italy’s borders, this business took off in a big way during the mid-to-late 19th century. Because tomatoes do well stored inside metal containers, canning companies dramatically drove up the demand. The popularity of canned tomatoes was later solidified by immigrants who came to the United States from Italy during the early 20th century: Longing for Mediterranean ingredients, transplanted families created a huge market for Italian-grown tomatoes in the US.

2. CURRY

Bowl of chicken curry with a spoon in it

An international favorite, curry is beloved in both India and the British Isles, not to mention the United States. And it turns out humans may have been enjoying the stuff for a very, very long time. The word “curry” was coined by European colonists and is something of an umbrella term. In Tamil, a language primarily found in India and Sri Lanka, “kari” means “sauce.” When Europeans started traveling to India, the term was eventually modified into “curry,” which came to designate any number of spicy foods with South or Southeast Asian origins. Nonetheless, a great number of curry dishes share two popular components: turmeric and ginger. In 2012, traces of both were discovered inside residue caked onto pots and human teeth at a 4500-year-old archaeological site in northern India. And where there’s curry, there’s usually garlic: A carbonized clove of this plant was also spotted nearby. “We don’t know they were putting all of them together in a dish, but we know that they were eating them at least individually,” Steve Weber, one of the archaeologists who helped make this astonishing find, told The Columbian. He and his colleagues have tentatively described their discovery as "proto-curry."

3. THE BAGUETTE

Several baguettes

A quintessential Gallic food, baguettes are adored throughout France, where residents gobble up an estimated 10 billion every year. The name of the iconic bread ultimately comes from the Latin word for stick, baculum, and references its long, slender form. How the baguette got that signature shape is a mystery. One popular yarn credits Napoleon Bonaparte: Supposedly, the military leader asked French bakers to devise a new type of skinny bread loaf that could be comfortably tucked into his soldiers’ pockets. Another origin story involves the Paris metro, built in the 19th century by a team of around 3500 workers who were apparently sometimes prone to violence during meal times. It’s been theorized that the metro foremen tried to de-escalate the situation by introducing bread that could be broken into pieces by hand—thereby eliminating the need for laborers to carry knives. Alas, neither story is supported by much in the way of historical evidence. Still, it’s clear that lengthy bread is nothing new in France: Six-foot loaves were a common sight in the mid-1800s. The baguette as we know it today, however, didn’t spring into existence until the early 20th century. The modern loaf is noted for its crispy golden crust and white, puffy center—both traits made possible by the advent of steam-based ovens, which first arrived on France’s culinary scene in the 1920s.

4. POTATOES

Bowl of red, white, and black potatoes on wooden table

Historical records show that potatoes reached Ireland by the year 1600. Nobody knows who first introduced them; the list of potential candidates includes everyone from Sir Walter Raleigh to the Spanish Armada. Regardless, Ireland turned out to be a perfect habitat for the tubers, which hail from the misty slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. Half a world away, Ireland’s rich soils and rainy climate provided similar conditions—and potatoes thrived there. They also became indispensable. For millennia, the Irish diet had mainly consisted of dairy products, pig meats, and grains, none of which were easy for poor farmers to raise. Potatoes, on the other hand, were inexpensive, easy to grow, required fairly little space, and yielded an abundance of filling carbs. Soon enough, the average Irish peasant was subsisting almost entirely on potatoes, and the magical plant is credited with almost single-handedly triggering an Irish population boom. In 1590, only around 1 million people lived on the island; by 1840, that number had skyrocketed to 8.2 million. Unfortunately, this near-total reliance on potatoes would have dire consequences for the Irish people. In 1845, a disease caused by fungus-like organisms killed off somewhere between one-third and one-half of the country’s potatoes. Roughly a million people died as a result, and almost twice as many left Ireland in a desperate mass exodus. Yet potatoes remained a cornerstone of the Irish diet after the famine ended; in 1899, one magazine reported that citizens were eating an average of four pounds’ worth of them every day. Expatriates also brought their love of potatoes with them to other countries, including the U.S. But by then, the Yanks had already developed a taste for the crop: The oldest record of a permanent potato patch on American soil dates back to 1719. That year, a group of farmers—most likely Scots-Irish immigrants—planted one in the vicinity of modern-day Derry, New Hampshire. From these humble origins, the potato steadily rose in popularity, and by 1796, American cookbooks were praising its “universal use, profit, and easy acquirement.”

5. CORN

Corn growing in a field

In the 1930s, geneticist George W. Beadle exposed a vital clue about how corn—also known as maize—came into existence. A future Nobel Prize winner, Beadle demonstrated that the chromosomes found in everyday corn bear a striking resemblance to those of a Mexican grass called teosinte. At first glance, teosinte may not look very corn-like. Although it does have kernels, these are few in number and encased in tough shells that can easily chip a human tooth. Nonetheless, years of work allowed Beadle to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that corn was descended from teosinte. Today, genetic and archaeological data suggests that humans began the slow process of converting this grass into corn around 8700 years ago in southwestern Mexico. If you're wondering why early farmers showed any interest in cultivating teosinte to begin with, while the plant is fairly unappetizing in its natural state, it does have a few key attributes. One of these is the ability to produce popcorn: If held over an open fire, the kernels will “pop” just as our favorite movie theater treat does today. It might have been this very quality that inspired ancient horticulturalists to tinker around with teosinte—and eventually turn it into corn

BONUS: TEA

Person sitting cross-legged holding a cup of green tea

The United Kingdom’s ongoing love affair with this hot drink began somewhat recently. Tea—which is probably of Chinese origin—didn’t appear in Britain until the 1600s. Initially, the beverage was seen as an exotic curiosity with possible health benefits. Shipping costs and tariffs put a hefty price tag on tea, rendering it quite inaccessible to the lower classes. Even within England’s most affluent circles, tea didn’t really catch on until King Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza. By the time they tied the knot in 1662, tea-drinking was an established pastime among the elite in her native Portugal. Once Catherine was crowned Queen, tea became all the rage in her husband’s royal court. From there, its popularity slowly grew over several centuries and eventually transcended socioeconomic class. At present, the average Brit drinks an estimated three and a half cups of tea every day.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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