In the 19th century, the pairing of tea with a light snack to quiet the hunger between an early lunch and a late-night dinner became known as “afternoon tea.” As the practice grew, so did the demand for elegant tea wares and serving pieces. The tiered tea tray came about as a convenient way to display delicate mini courses with an economical use of space. Situated at or near the center of the table and surrounded by teapots, cups, bowls, and spreads, the practical device allowed easy access to the food.
Shaped like a pyramid and typically stacked with three plates, or tiers, the tray was an ideal way to accommodate scones, savories, and sweets simultaneously, giving guests an order in which the courses should be eaten. In the earliest years of the tea tray’s history, the top tier was reserved for scones, which were kept warm by a silver warming dome. The second, or middle, plate held sweets like petits fours, marzipan, and cakes. The bottom tier was the serving station for simple and crustless sandwiches. In general, guests served themselves from the bottom tier first and worked their way to the top.