Food in the 20th century

Page 4 – Tea and coffee break

Tea and biscuits: the tea and coffee break

Tea was a 'great mainstay' of 'thirsty colonial New Zealand', the food historian Tony Simpson claims. Nineteenth-century New Zealand imported considerable amounts of tea. Legislation such as the Tea Examination Act 1882 safeguarded its quality by making mandatory the selling of pure tea, rather than that adulterated with sawdust or other additives.

Tea was the hot beverage of choice throughout the twentieth century. It formed an important part of picnics, as many photographs suggest.

It also sustained soldiers at war. Norman Gray fought on the Western Front during 1916/17, taking part in the actions around the Somme and Ypres. His journal entries evoke the welcome relief that tea and the respite from activity gave to weary soldiers:

It had been raining for two and a half days and was still pouring. The walk up the hill was just about the finish for most of us. We were drenched to the bone, utterly fagged after sixty hours of almost continuous work, and it required a series of supreme efforts to keep from flopping into the mud - anywhere - and letting things rip. Just on the ridge, before we reached our site, we were greeted by the Y.M.C.A canteen, a cup of tea and two packets of biscuits ready for every man.

From Jock Phillips, Nicholas Boyack and E.P. Malone (eds), The Great Adventure: New Zealand Soldiers Describe the First World War, Allen and Unwin/Port Nicholson Press, Wellington, 1988, p.97.

Tea is an essential part of 'smoko' for manual labourers; the tea break itself was a hard-won right for workers. Substantial morning and afternoon teas were vital for farm workers and labouring people, keeping them energised during their working day.

'Afternoon tea' is a more genteel 'smoko': china cups and saucers rather than metal mugs, tables and chairs instead of upturned bags or the bare ground.

New Zealand was also known for its 'baking culture'. That vital appliance for baking - the coal range or stove - was first manufactured locally in the 1870s. It was the major cooking appliance until after the Second World War when electric stoves, available from the 1920s, replaced it. The last coal ranges were made in New Zealand in 1965, but they remained in use in many households after that.

Home-baked products have been a mark of hospitality, if local cookery books are anything to go by. Recipes for cakes, sponges, biscuits, loaves and scones long formed the core of recipe books designed with the New Zealand home and cook in mind; clearly, the New Zealand woman was thought to have ample time to spare in the kitchen. Almost a third of Aunt Daisy's 1954 cookbook was devoted to tin-fillers. It was divided into sections for particular types of baking: biscuits, large cakes (including eight types of sponge), small cakes, and 'bread, scones, teacakes, etc'. The greater participation of women in the paid workforce, and the variety of commercially manufactured biscuits available, led to a decline of home-baking from the 1960s.

New Zealanders have become great coffee drinkers. The consumption of coffee has grown considerably over the last 50 years. The combined effects of the stationing of American servicemen in New Zealand, and the arrival of European refugees and settlers used to drinking coffee rather than tea, boosted coffee consumption from the 1940s. The introduction of instant coffee in the 1960s increased it even further, and by the 1980s this was the most common way that coffee was drunk. The latte scene is a recent urban phenomenon. Before the 1990s - and still in cafeterias outside the heart of the main centres - instant coffee was the most common way that coffee was served.

Cooking advice

Advice on food and cookery has been available in a variety of formats. Cookery books have long been produced in New Zealand, with the Edmonds cookbook, first published in 1907, one of the most popular. Cookery writers such as Elizabeth Messenger provided regular columns in newspapers as well as writing cookbooks. Advice on nutrition and healthy eating was available through the work of nutritionists such as Muriel Bell. Perhaps New Zealand's most famous food advisor was broadcaster Maud Basham, better known as Aunt Daisy.

Biographies of Shacklock, Carter, Messenger, Bell and Basham are available on the online Dictionary of NZ Biography website

How to cite this page

'Tea and coffee break', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 16-Dec-2013