Tea: A Brief History
by Susan Titus
When New Englanders speak historically about
TEA, probably nine out of ten of them remember the Boston tea party
of December 1773. Although Deerfield, Massachusetts, is one hundred
miles west of Boston -- a three-day ride on horseback - news of
the "big dish of tea brewed in Boston Harbor" traveled to that Connecticut
Valley town as quickly as David Field, who was in Boston that night
could urge his horse to his home in Deerfield. His news was met
with jubilation by fellow Whigs and it was reported that they convened
at David Saxton's tavern near the common for a "jollification" meeting
the evening Field arrived. You may be sure that stronger drink than
tea was served that night!
Considered an exotic beverage when it first
made its way onto the tables of the wealthiest Europeans and American
colonials, tea was valued in the west as a "very expensive medicine."
Believed to cure the respiratory ailments, headaches, giddiness,
heaviness, colds, and dropsy, tea was reputed to be a restorative
against the loss of body fluids caused by excessive sweating and
purging, two common medical curatives of the day.
Another exotic drink, CHOCOLATE was supposed
to arouse people's passions and it was said that chocolate could
turn old women young and fresh. It was promoted as a mood enhancer
and, in addition, as a positive cure for any kind of stomachache.
And COFFEE, the third of the brews with almost magical properties,
then as now touted as a beverage that made people wakeful and alert.
All three beverages began to gain popularity in Europe around 1650
when they were introduced by traders from Holland, Portugal, and
England. Coffee was the first of the three luxury drinks to become
affordable to the masses. Colonial Americans had coffee houses in
cities like Boston by the late 17th century, but tea and chocolate
arrived a little later. Until the late 1800's, all TEA came from
China because that country had the right climate and the large labor
force necessary for harvesting the camellia sinensis. The tea plant
is really a shrub, first cultivated in China, but later introduced
to Japan, Sri Lanka, and other countries by monks and European traders.
Tea's domestic success was ensured in England
with the marriage of King Charles II to the Portuguese princess
Catherine of Braganza in 1662. Catherine was already familiar with
tea and the ritual of its preparation and when she arrived, she
encouraged the drinking of tea at court. On a more modest level,
we find a reference to tea in the diary of Englishmen Samuel Pepys
who recorded on June 28, 1667, "By coach home and found my wife
making tea; a drink Mr. Pelling the apothecary tells her is good
for cold and defluxions." In 1717, also in London, Thomas Twining
(whose name is still famous for tea products) opened the first tea
shop for ladies.
Tea was the first safe non-alcoholic drink and
despite the high cost of the tea leaf, the tea drinking habit gained
momentum. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was customary for most
people, and that included children, to drink cider, wine, and ale
daily since unboiled water supplies were not safe and milk was considered
only for babies and very young animals.
Along with tea came another import -- porcelain.
TEA requires that boiling water be added to the tea leaves which
are then brewed or steeped, for several minutes. The European earthen
ware of the day wasn't strong enough to withstand the boiling water
and often resulted in thermal shock which cracked the tea cup or
pot. One reason for pouring milk or cream into the teacup before
adding the tea was to buffer the weaker ceramics against the sudden
heat of the brew. Chinese porcelain, fired at temperatures of 1400
degrees, was strong enough to sustain the thermal shock and the
wares began to be imported into Europe and England and, eventually,
America. It was nearly one hundred years before the first European
porcelain was perfected in Meissen, Saxony (Germany) in 1710. Later
France would discover the formula and even later England would begin
manufacture. The English potters had experimented with the making
of porcelain throughout the 18th century, but failed to understand
that the product is achieved through a merging of two different
clays -- petuntse and kaolin -- one the "bones" and the other "flesh."
In the 1770's and 1780's it became fashionable
to drink tea from the saucer, perhaps to allow the tea to cool.
One consistent characteristic of tea wares at that time was the
deep saucer, borrowed from China. Later in the century, cup plates
became part of the tea set and allowed the tea drinker to "park"
her cup on the small cup plate while she sipped tea from the saucer
-- all this in a seated position instead of standing, as before.
Often kept in locked cabinets or small wooden
boxes called tea caddies, fresh tea was brewed in the morning. It
was then not unusual for the tea leaves to be strained and reused
for tea in the afternoon. Tea sets often included a tea bottle,
a small lidded flask-like vessel, which held a modest supply of
dry tea leaves. Because of the expense of tea, it was considered
just as rude for the guest to refuse more as for the hostess not
to refill one's empty cup. Generosity and acceptance were the fashion
so, in America, guests learned they must turn their teacups upside
down when they had enough.
By the 1840's, when the evening meal had advanced
to 7:30 or 8:00 in fashionable homes, the gap between it and the
noonday meal became uncomfortably long. Among the causes for the
delay were longer journeys home from the office to outlying districts,
longer office hours sometimes followed by visits to gentlemen's
clubs, and the invention of gas lighting, which extended the work
day. Ladies began to take a meal of tea and cakes in the afternoon,
at first in the bedrooms and then in a downstairs room. By 1850,
in England, tea at this time of day had become customary in most
middle-and upper-class homes.
Although most men reportedly thought that the
hour was devoted to the ceremony known as afternoon tea was "a mild
form of dissipation', the ladies were said to have enjoyed it immensely.
The usual ratio of men to women at these afternoon gatherings was
said to be five to thirty.
Hostesses tried to outdo each other with a display
of their finest china services, table linens, and cake stands, accompanied
by an array of small cakes, biscuits, and at least one large cake
-- either fruit, caraway, or Madeira -- as well as hot teacakes
and thin sandwiches. ("The slices of bread which you serve with
your tea,&" wrote Pastor Miritz in 1782, "are as thin as poppy leaves.")
Ladies had to remove their gloves to eat ices, fruit, and sandwiches,
but their hats remained firmly on their heads.
By the second half of the 19th century, afternoon
tea was being adopted by lower-class homes. A "family" or "high"
tea could consist of crusty bread and butter, muffins, and crumpets,
cheese, potted spreads of meat and fish, as well as various kinds
of cakes. A "small&" tea was likely to be composed of thin bread
and butter, jam or honey, and cake.
As more women began to work outside the home,
teashops were introduced where they could comfortably meet and not
be classed as prostitutes, as had been the case in former times.
Encouraged by the temperance societies during
the 19th century, tea drinking increased dramatically. Until then,
tea had been imported only from China and at considerable cost,
but with the discovery of tea growing wild in Assam by Sir Bruce
in 1826, a committee was set up in England to plan its cultivation
in India on a large scale. The new varieties of tea were soon available
in abundance and the prices tumbled. As a result, by the 1840's,
tea was being drunk by all working people and it often comprised
the only hot item in their diets. A quite deceptive feeling of warmth
and satisfaction can be enjoyed after a pot of tea, although it
truly has minimal food value. In reality a glass of cold beer makes
a more substantial contribution to one's nutrition.
Between 1840 and 1890, the consumption of tea
in England rose from 1.6 pounds of tea per person annually to 5.7
pounds (about four cups daily), taken at breakfast, at work at the
noon day meal, with supper, and at social gatherings. Everyone was
drinking tea, and if you have been to England recently, they still
are. To further illustrate its popularity, consider the example
of British statesman William Gladstone (1819-1889), who was so fond
of the beverage that he was reputed to have put tea into his hot
water bottle in order to have a supply ready during the night.
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