In Westernized Culture- especially in the United States- I have come to notice that it is common for fancier, upper class style Teas to be regularly be called a High Tea. This, however, is a misnomer. The elegant Teas during which one is expected to dress in finery and utilize proper etiquette and manners is not a High Tea at all.
The confusion between a High Tea and a Low Tea comes from the associations of the words “High” and “Low” themselves. “High” is associated with a certain refined class and elegance belonging to the upper echelon and elite of society. Terms such as High Class, High Quality, and more seem to reflect this even in modern vernacular. “Low” on the other hand is the opposite- that which belongs to poverty or the working peoples and is often considered unrefined and lesser; low class and low in quality.
It would make sense that people should jump to the conclusion that a High Tea would be an elegant occasion and a Low Tea would be a more casual event. Even in modern language the association makes sense- and yet this is truly far from the case when it actually comes to the topic of Tea.
Originally Tea would be taken in a bedroom or more private personal chamber in the early morning hours. Depending on who and when, this could be before Breakfast, or between Breakfast and Lunch. Eventually, however, the time would be adjusted to early afternoon with Tea being served some time between 2 and 4 pm.
Alongside the time change, a location change would occur later as well; such entertaining began to take place in a Parlor or Sitting Room (and occasionally the Garden) as opposed to the bed areas they were originally held in. It was at this point that food was also introduced to the setting, with the Tea being served alongside lighter pastries, scones, and sandwiches.
Like with many things, the High Tea began as the Lower Class attempting to imitate their Upper Class counterparts. With long working hours, a lack of leisure time, and lower funds, however, what resulted was far from the concept of the Low Tea they were trying to imitate. When the Upper Class decided to adopt and formalize the practice themselves, the High Tea was made a common staple of Hunting and similar gatherings as a means to refresh their energy in the late afternoon hours.
It was not uncommon for the High Tea to be held between 5 and 7 pm, and as such it was often served at a dining table or in another such eating area. The later time of the event meant that the menu consisted of different items- including heartier, richer varieties of food at the time.
Ergo, “High” and “Low” more correctly refer to certain distinguishing factors of the event: The time of day the event is held, which part of the house it is held in, and types of foods that one serves alongside the Tea. Indeed, this is why the two are most often referred to as a Meat Tea (High) and Cream Tea (Low) respectively!