Milk in First, or Last Part 1: a Storm in a Teacup?

Poster created by the amazing Geof Banyard (islandofdoctorgeof.co.uk) for a
2016 mock ‘Tea Referendum’

The Short Version: Pouring tea (from a teapot) with the milk in the cup first was an acceptable, if minority, preference regardless of class until the 1920s, when upper class tea drinkers decided that it was something that only the lower classes did. It does affect the taste but whether in a positive or negative way (or whether you even notice/care) is strictly a matter of preference. So, if we’re to ignore silly class-based snobbery, milk-in-first remains an acceptable alternative method. Unless you are making your tea in a mug or cup with a teabag, in which case, for the love of god, put the milk in last, or you’ll kill the infusion process stone dead.

This article first appeared in a beautifully designed ‘Tea Ration’ booklet designed by Headstamp Publishing for Kickstarter supporters of my book (Ferguson, 2020). Now that these lovely people have had their books (and booklets) for a while, I thought it time to unleash a slightly revised version on anyone else that might care! It’s a long read, so I’ll break it into two parts (references in Part 2, now added here, for those interested)…

Part 1: The History

Like many of my fellow Britons, I drink an enormous amount of tea. By ‘tea’, I mean tea as drunk in Britain, the Republic of Ireland and to a large extent in the Commonwealth. This takes the form of strong blends of black leaves, served hot with (usually) milk and (optionally) sugar. I have long been aware of the debate over whether to put the milk into the cup first or last, and that passions can run pretty high over this (as in all areas of tea preference). For a long time however, I did not grasp just how strong these views were until I read comments made on a video (Ferguson & McCollum, 2020) made to support the launch of my book ‘Thorneycroft to SA80: British Bullpup Firearms 1901 – 2020’. This showed brewed tea being poured into a cup already containing milk, which caused a flurry of mock (and perhaps some genuine) horror in the comments section. Commenters were overwhelmingly in favour of putting milk in last (henceforth ‘MIL’) and not the other way around (‘milk in first’ or ‘MIF’). This is superficially supported by a 2018 survey in which 79% of participants agreed with MIL (Smith, 2018). This survey was seriously flawed in not specifying the use of a teapot or individual mug/cup as the brewing receptacle. Very few British/Irish-style tea drinkers would ever drop a teabag in on top of milk, as this soaks into the bag, preventing most of the leaves from infusing into the hot water. Most of us these days only break out the teapot (and especially the loose-leaf tea, china cups, tea-tray etc) on special occasions, and it takes a conscious effort to try the milk in first.

Regardless, anecdotally at least it does seem that a majority would still argue for MIL even when using a teapot. This might seem only logical; tea is the drink, milk is the additive. The main justifications given were the alleged difficulty of judging the colour and therefore the strength of the mixture, and an interesting historical claim that only working class people in the past had put milk in first, in order to protect their cheap porcelain cups. The practicalities seemed to be secondary to some idea of an objectively ‘right’ way to do it, however, with many expressing mock (perhaps in some cases, genuine) horror at MIF. This vehement reaction drove me to investigate, coming to the tentative conclusion that there was a strong social class influence and releasing a follow-up video in which I acknowledged this received wisdom (Ferguson, 2020). I also demonstrated making a cup of perfectly strong tea using MIF, thus empirically proving the colour/strength argument wrong – given a suitably strong blend and brew of course. The initial source that I found confirmed the modern view on the etiquette of tea making and the colour justification. This was ‘Tea & Etiquette’ (1998, pp. 74-75) written by American Dorothea Johnson. Johnson warns ‘Don’t put the milk in before the tea because then you cannot judge the strength of the tea by its color…’

And:

‘ …don’t be guilty of this faux pas…’

Johnson then lists ‘Good Reasons to Add Milk After the Tea is Poured into a Cup’, as follows:

  • The butler in the popular 1970s television program Upstairs, Downstairs kindly gave the following advice to the household servants who were arguing about the virtues of adding milk before or after the tea is poured: “Those of us downstairs put the milk in first, while those upstairs put the milk in last.”
  • Moyra Bremner, author of Enquire Within Upon Modern Etiquette and Successful Behaviour, says, “Milk, strictly speaking, goes in after the tea.”
  • According to the English writer Evelyn Waugh, “All nannies and many governesses… put the milk in first.”
  • And, by the way, Queen Elizabeth II adds the milk in last.

Unlike the video comments, which did not directly reference social class, this assessment practically drips with snobbery, thinly veiled with the practical but subjective justification that one cannot judge the colour (and hence strength) of the final brew as easily. Still, it pointed toward the fact that there really was somehow a broadly acknowledged ‘right’ way, which surprised me. The handful of other etiquette and household books that I found in my quick search seemed to agree, and in a modern context there is no doubt that ‘milk in last’ (MIL) has come to be seen as the ‘proper’ way. However, as I suspected, there is definitely more to it—milk last wasn’t always the prescribed method, and it isn’t necessarily the best way to make your ‘cuppa’ either…

So, to the history books themselves… I spent longer than is healthy perusing ladies’ etiquette books and, as it turns out, only the modern ones assert that milk should go in last or imply that there is any kind of class aspect to be borne in mind. In fact, Elizabeth Emma Rice in her Domestic Economy (1884, p. 139) states confidently that:

“…those who make the best tea generally put the sugar and milk in the cup, and then pour in the hot tea.”

I checked all of the etiquette books that I could find electronically, regardless of time period, and only one other is proscriptive with regards to serving milk with tea. This is The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness: A Complete Handbook, by Florence Hartley (1860, pp. 105–106) which passes no judgement on which is superior, but recommends for convenience that cups of tea are poured and passed around to be milked and sugared to taste. This may provide a practical underpinning to the upper-class preference for MIL; getting someone’s cup of tea wrong would be a real issue at a gathering or party. You either had to ask how the guest liked it and have them ‘say when’ to stop pouring the milk, which would take time and be fraught with difficulty or, more likely, you simply poured a cup for each and let them add milk and sugar to their taste. This also speaks to how tea was originally drunk (as fresh coffee still is)—black, with milk if you wanted it. A working-class household was less likely to host large gatherings or have a need to impress people. There it was more convenient to add roughly the same amount of milk to each cup, and then fill the rest with tea. , you would simply be given a cup made as the host deemed fit, or perhaps be asked how you like it. If thought sufficiently fussy, you might be told to make it yourself! In any case, Hartley was an American writing for Americans, and I found no pre-First World War British guides that actually recommended milk in last. As noted, the only guide that did cover it (Rice) actually favours milk in first.

Much of my research aligns with that presented in a superb article by Professor Markman Ellis of the Queen Mary University History of Tea Project. Ellis agrees that the ‘milk in first or last’ thing was really about the British class system—which helps explain why I found so few pre-Second World War references to the dilemma. His thesis boils down (ha!) to a crisis of identity among the post-First World War upper class. In the 1920s, the wealth gap between the growing middle class and the upper class was narrowing. This is where the expression nouveau riche—the new rich—comes from; they had the money but, as the ‘true’ upper class saw it, not the ‘breeding’. They could pose as upper class, but could never be upper class. Of course, that very middle class would, in its turn, come to look down on aspiring working-class people (think Hyacinth Bucket from British situation comedy Keeping Up Appearances). In any case, if you cared about appearances and reputation among your upper-class peers or felt threatened by social mobility, you had to have a way of setting yourself apart from the ’lower classes’. Arbitrary rulesets that included MIL were a way to do this. Ellis cites several pre-First World War sources (dating back as far as 1846) which comment on how individuals took their tea. These suggest that milk-in-first (MIF) was thought somewhat unusual, but the sources pass no judgement and don’t mention that this is thought to be a working class phenomenon. Adding milk to tea was, logically enough, how it was originally done—black tea came first and milk was an addition. Additions are added, after all. As preferences developed, some would have tried milk first and liked it. This alone explains why those adding milk first might seem eccentric, but not ‘wrong’ per se. In fact, by the first decade of the 20th century, MIF had become downright fashionable, at least among the middle class, as Helen with the High Hand (1910) shows. In this novel, the titular Helen states that an “…authority on China tea…” should know that “…milk ought to be poured in first. Why, it makes quite a different taste!” This presumptuous attitude (how dare the lower classes tell us how to make our tea?!) that influenced the upper-class rejection of the practice in later decades.

This brings us back to Ellis’s explanation of where the practice originated, and also explains the context of Evelyn Waugh’s comments as reported by Johnson. These come from Waugh’s contribution to to Noblesse Oblige—a book that codified the latest habits of the English aristocracy. Ellis dismisses the authors and editor as snobs of the sort that originated and perpetuated the tea/milk meme. However, in fairness to Waugh, he does make clear that he’s talking about the view of some of his peers, not necessarily his own, and even gives credit to MIF ‘tea-fanciers’ for trying to make the tea taste better. His full comments are as follows:

All nannies and many governesses, when pouring out tea, put the milk in first. (It is said by tea-fanciers to produce a richer mixture.) Sharp children notice that this is not normally done in the drawing-room. To some this revelation becomes symbolic. We have a friend you may remember, far from conventional in other ways, who makes it her touchstone. “Rather MIF, darling,” she says in condemnation.

                             -Waugh, 1956.

Incidentally, I erroneously stated that governesses were ‘working class’ in my original video on this topic. In fact, although nannies often were, the governess was typically of the middle class, or even an impoverished upper-middle or upper class woman. Both roles occupied a space between classes, being neither one nor the other but excluded from ever being truly ‘U’. As a result, they were free to make tea as they thought best. Waugh’s view is not the only tea-related one in the book. Poet John Betjeman also alluded to this growing view that MIF was a lower class behaviour in his long list of things that would mark out the speaker as a member of the middle class:

Milk and then just as it comes dear?

I’m afraid the preserve’s full of stones;

Beg pardon I’m soiling the doileys

With afternoon tea-cakes and scones.

                             -Betjeman, 1956.

Returning to the etiquette books, although the early ones were written for those running an upper-class household, the latter-day efforts like Johnson’s are actually aimed at those aspiring to behave like, or at least fascinated by, the British upper class. This is why Johnson invokes famous posh Britons and even the Queen herself to make her point to her American audience. Interestingly though, Johnson takes Samuel Twining’s name in vain. The ninth-generation member of the famous Twining tea company is in fact an advocate of milk first, and he too thought that MIL came from snobbery:

With a wave of his hand, Mr. Twining dismisses this idea as nonsense. “Of course you have to put the milk in first to make a proper cup of tea.” He surmises that upper-class snobbery about pouring the tea first, had its origins in their desire to show that their cups were pure imported Chinese porcelain.

Guanghua (光華) magazine, 1995, Volume 20, Issues 7-12, p. 19.

Twining goes on to explain his hypothesis that the lower classes only had access to poor quality porcelain that could not withstand the thermal shock of hot liquid, and so had to put the milk in first to protect the cup. Plausible enough, but almost certainly wrong. As Ellis explains in his article;

…tea was consumed in Britain for almost two centuries before milk was commonly added, without damaging the cups, and in any case the whole point of porcelain, other than its beauty, was its thermo-resistance.

Food journalist Beverly Dubrin mentions the theory in her book ‘Tea Culture: History, Traditions, Celebrations, Recipes & More’ (2012, p. 24), but identifies it as ‘speculation’. I could find no historical references to the cracking of teacups until after the Second World War. The claim first appears in a 1947 issue of the American-published (but international in scope)‘Tea & Coffee Trade Journal’ (Volumes 92-93, p.11), along with yet another pro-MIF comment:

…MILK FIRST in the TEA, PLEASE! Do you pour the milk in your cup before the tea? Whatever your menfolk might say, it isn’t merely ‘an old wives’ tale : it’s a survival from better times than these, when valuable porcelain cups were commonly in use. The cold milk prevented the boiling liquor cracking the cups. Just plain common sense, of course. But there is more in it than that, as you wives know — tea looks better and tastes better made that way.

The only references to cracking teaware that I’ve found were to the teapot itself, into which you’d be pouring truly boiling water if you wanted the best brewing results. Several books mention the inferiority of British ‘soft’ porcelain in the 18th century, made without “access to the kaolin clay from which hard porcelain was made”, as Paul Monod says in his 2009 book ‘Imperial Island: A History of Britain and Its Empire, 1660-1837’. By the Victorian period this “genuine or true” porcelain was only “occasionally” made in Britain, as this interesting 1845 source relates, and remained expensive (whether British or imported) into the 20th century. This has no doubt contributed to the explanation that the milk was put there to protect the cups, even though the pot was by far the bigger worry and there are plenty of surviving soft-paste porcelain teacups today without cracks (e.g. this Georgian example). Of course, it isn’t actually necessary for cracking to be a realistic concern, only that the perception existed, and so we can’t rule it out as a factor. However, that early ‘Tea & Coffee Trade Journal’ mention is also interesting because it omits any reference to social class and implies that this was something that everyone used to do for practical reasons, and is now done as a matter of preference. Likewise, on the other side of the debate, author and Spanish Civil War veteran George Orwell argued in favour of MIL in a piece for the Evening Standard (January 1946) entitled ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’:

…by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.

                             -Orwell, 1946.

This reiterated his earlier advice captured in this wonderful video from the Spanish trenches. However, Orwell acknowledged that the method of adding milk was “…one of the most controversial points of all…” and admitted that “the milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments.” Orwell (who himself hailed from the upper middle class) doesn’t mention class differences or worries over cracking cups.

By the 1960s people were more routinely denouncing MIF as a working class practice, although even at this late stage there was disagreement. Upper class explorer and writer James Maurice Scott in ‘The Tea Story’ (1964, p. 112) commented:

The argument as to which should be put first into the cup, the tea or the milk, is as old and unsolvable as which came first, the chicken or the egg. There is, I think, a vague feeling that it is Non-U to put the milk in first – why, goodness knows.

It’s important to note that ‘U’ and ’Non-U’ were abbreviations used as shorthand for ‘Upper-Class’ and ‘Non-Upper-Class’ invented by Professor Alan Ross in his 1954 linguistic study, and unironically embraced by the likes of Mitford as a way to ‘other’ those that they saw as inferior.

The New Yorker magazine (1965, p. 26) reported a more emphatic advisory (seemingly a trick question!) given to an American visitor to London:

Do you like milk in first or tea in first? You know, putting milk in the cup first is a working-class custom, and tea first is not.

This, then, was the status quo reflected in the British TV programme ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ in the 1970s, which helped to expose new audiences to the idea that MIF was ‘not the done thing’. Lending libraries and affordable paperback editions afforded easy access to books like Noblesse Oblige. The 1980s then saw the modern breed of etiquette books (like ‘Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior’ that rehashed this snobbery for an American audience fascinated with the British upper class. Ironically of course, any American would have been unquestionably ‘Non-U’ to any upper class Brit, just as any working or middle-class Briton would have been. And finally (again covered by Ellis), much like the changing fashion of the extended pinkie finger (which started as an upper class habit and then became ‘common’ when it trickled down to the lower classes – see my article here), the upper class decided that worrying about the milk in your tea was now vulgar. Having caused the fuss in the first place, they retired to their collective drawing room, leaving us common folk to endlessly debate the merits of MIF/MIL…

That’s it for now. Next time: Why does anyone still care about this?

4 thoughts on “Milk in First, or Last Part 1: a Storm in a Teacup?

  1. I prefer to add some of the milk first and the rest, after, and have it served by a sexy older woman. This method, of course, is known as “MILF”.

  2. > which started as an upper class habit and then became ‘common’ when it trickled down to the lower classes – see my article here

    the link seems to be malformed, although the unaspirated h may be a dialectical shibboleth in and of itself…

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