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10 Music Video Milestones That Predated MTV

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On August 1, 1981, MTV went live to 100,000 cable subscribers. In the years that followed, hit songs and their accompanying music videos would become intrinsically linked in the minds of music fans, in a way that generations who came of age after Michael Jackson’s dance with the undead or Nirvana’s pep rally for punks may never quite comprehend. But music videos didn’t begin with MTV. The format had predecessors and an evolutionary chart that dates back nearly a century before the Beastie Boys pied some nerds in the face. Here are 10 milestones in music videos that came before anyone ever shouted “I want my MTV!” at some poor cable company phone line operator.

1. “THE LITTLE LOST CHILD” // 1894

By Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern - The Little Lost Child, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern were clothing salesmen who had a side business as songwriters. In 1894, they came up with a novel way to sell the sheet music to “The Little Lost Child,” a song in the vein of the poverty-drenched tear-jerkers of the time. They hired electrician George Thomas to create a series of “magic lantern” slide projections of photos to accompany performances of the song. After vaudeville acts worked the song and slideshow of city scenes into their repertoires, Marks and Stern managed to sell two million copies of the sheet music. It’s arguably the first song made popular through corresponding electronically distributed images and ushered in the brief vaudeville trend of “illustrated songs.”  

2. “SCREEN SONGS” // 1929-1938

During the days when short cartoons were screened before feature films, Fleischer Studios introduced iconic silver-screen versions of Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman. The company also produced a series of “Screen Songs” from 1929 to 1938, which were arguably the first short films created to illustrate popular songs. The mostly animated, black-and-white shorts featured the antics of funny animals and other early cartoon archetypes set to songs by then-major radio stars, including Cab Calloway and the Boswell Sisters, according to Hal Erickson's From Radio to the Big Screen. Many included a bouncing ball above the lyrics that encouraged theater-goers to sing along, karaoke-style.

3. “ST. LOUIS BLUES” // 1929

With the advent of “the talkies” in the late 1920s, musical numbers became an integral part of cinema. One of the first short films made to showcase a preexisting song was “St. Louis Blues,” starring “Queen of the Blues” Bessie Smith. The two-reel, 16-minute film, directed by Dudley Murphy, features Jimmy Mordecai as Smith’s two-timing boyfriend and Isabel Washington Powell as the other woman. The action eventually moves to a nightclub, where couples are swaying to Smith’s performance of the title song, which she had recorded four years earlier. While “Screen Songs” introduced the idea of pairing a song with a visual sequence, “St. Louis Blues” pushed that idea forward by encapsulating a singer’s aura in a short, music-driven film.

4. "STRANGER IN PARADISE" // 1956

“I filmed what I believe to be the first music video,” Tony Bennett wrote in his 2007 autobiography, The Good Life. In 1956, his record label filmed the golden-voiced vocalist walking through London’s Hyde Park and set the footage to his hit version of “Stranger in Paradise.” According to The Good Life, the clip was distributed to TV stations in the U.K. and U.S., to air in lieu of an appearance by Bennett himself. American Bandstand gave it some airtime.

5. THE VIDEO JUKEBOX // 1959

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For about five years, 500-pound, 7-foot-high machines that played 16-millimeter Technicolor films of pop stars were installed in bars across the world. Two competing companies began selling similar “video jukebox” devices at the same time: Ottica Meccanica Italiana developed the Cinebox in Italy and Cameca came out with the Scopitone in France. Each model was stuffed with three-minute films of popular musicians that could be queued up for a fee. (A producer even created a series of Arabic videos for France’s population of North African descent.) The technology spread, eventually making its way to the U.S.

Stateside, the machines never quite took off, which is why few A-list singers contributed to the U.S. Scopitone catalog. The videos were often colorful and swanky, the kind of thing that’d get a barfly’s attention. When interviewed by Collectors Weekly, Bob Orlowsky, a former attorney who collects the machines, pointed to Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl” as an exemplary Scopitone video.

“That’s the first one I always show people," Orlowsky said. "It’s just Neil in an ever-changing assortment of dinner jackets surrounded by a bunch of Las Vegas showgirls in very elaborate costumes, each themed for a different month of the year. It was guaranteed to get people’s attention in a bar in 1965. It’s just delightful.”

6. THE BEATLES' PROMOTIONAL VIDEOS // 1965

In 1965, The Beatles began producing promotional videos for their singles as a way to fulfill the demands of every Top of the Pops or American Bandstand-style show across the globe that wanted to book them. “The mania made it pretty difficult to get around,” George Harrison said, “and out of convenience we decided we were not going to go into the TV studios to promote our records so much because it was too much of a hassle. We thought we’d go and make our own little films and put them on TV.”

They started with “Paperback Writer” and “Rain,” then became more complex over time, with “Penny Lane” employing horses across a grand city scene. As The Fab Four set the rules of their generation, soon many bands started creating clips for the TV market.

7. THE NOW EXPLOSION // 1970

If you were a teenager in the Atlanta area, for a very brief window of time in 1970, the hippest way to spend a weekend in was to tune into channel 17 for The Now Explosion, a 28-hour, free-wheeling TV program that seemed to pioneer both MTV and the YouTube mashup edit. The idea, which was to try and replicate Top 40 radio on a UHF station, came from broadcaster Bob Whitney. (Back in the broadcast days, UHF was the lower, more localized signal strength of the TV bandwidth.) He hired two Atlanta DJs to host the shows.

Viewers might have watched a band’s official promotional clip or an amateur unauthorized video of a song created by the program's producer, 28-year-old R.T. Williams, including a politically-charged version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Of course, the cheesiest tricks in chroma key, color saturation, and split screening available to 1970s video art students were employed.

For a brief period, The Now Explosion was amazingly successful—which was surprising given its weirdness and how ahead of its time it was. After debuting in Atlanta, it was later syndicated to stations in Charlotte, Sacramento, Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and San Francisco. However, the idea proved to be financially unsustainable, and Whitney ended it less than a year after it began.

8. COUNTDOWN // 1974-1987

Just as color TV was permeating Australia and the country’s pop music scene was coming into its own, the government-owned Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC) introduced Countdown, a weekly showcase of lip-synched performances and music videos. Settling into a Sunday night time slot, Countdown could instantly make a song a hit, according to Michelle Arrow's Friday on Our Minds. (Midnight Oil declined to appear because the show “was young girls and flashing disco floors [and] we wanted to present ourselves in sweaty, smoky pubs,” according to Arrow’s book.) The show lasted until 1987 when competitors, including the imported MTV, overpowered it in the marketplace.

9. “BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY” // 1975

The first clip to fully meet the MTV-era definition of the music video was arguably the one made for Queen’s classic of ’70s grandiosity. “[I]nsofar as we can locate a decisive origin of the form [of the music video], and thus its era, it is in 1975 with a promotional video to accompany Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ single,” wrote Philip Hayward in Culture, Technology & Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century. Whereas previous promo clips were mostly about the band, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was about the song. Hayward argued that the video, known for the iconic formation of its band members standing with their faces in a diamond, has a unique aesthetic tied to the scope and mood of the epically emotional song.

Queen’s label EMI set aside the then-hefty sum of £3500 to record the video to help the song in its unexpected crawl up the charts. The video also spared the band from trying to recreate the complex composition live on TV. With the video, the band controlled the way in which their song would be presented on TV, a power MTV-era musicians would take for granted.

10. "VIDEO CONCERT HALL" // 1978

One of the first cable channels, USA Network, began utilizing the library of music material that record labels had amassed to fill its hours of programming. According to I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, the network started a segment called "Video Concert Hall" in 1978. Eschewing the American Bandstand-style format of a host and lip-syncing guests, it simply played promotional videos and concert clips. The network also had a twilight block called "Night Flight," which featured cult movies, concert films, and occasional videos. Another early cable network, Nickelodeon, experimented with a music video show called PopClips.

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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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