Determining The Growth And Distribution Of Tea Drinking In Eighteenth-Century America

Barbara G. Carson

BEFORE BRITISH TAXATION EFFORTS and the American Revolution politicized tea, the acquisition of new domestic equipment for serving this hot beverage and the display of genteel behavior when drinking it had come to signal social know-how and refinement among colonists. Although the casual perusal of travel journals, letters, diaries, and other personal writings from the period might suggest that tea drinking almost immediately became widespread throughout the colonies, further examination reveals different patterns of consumption at various times and within differing populations.

Around 1750 Israel Acrelius asserted in his history of the Swedish settlement on the Delaware River that “[t]ea, coffee, and chocolate are so general as to be found in the most remote cabins, if not for daily use, yet for visitors, mixed with Muscovado [a partially refined sugar]” (Roth 1961,66), The Virginian Devereaux Jarratt presented a different picture, however, when he reminisced about his childhood in the 1740s:

Our food was altogether the produce of the farm, or plantation except a little sugar, which was rarely used. We made no use of tea or coffee for breakfast, or at any other time; nor did I know a single family that made any use of them…. I suppose the richer sort might make use of those and other luxuries, but to such people I had no access. We were accustomed to look upon, what were cdlcd gentle folks, as beings of a superior order. [ Jarratt 1952,361]

Given the disparity between these two accounts, it is extremely useful to consult a variety of sources in attempting to determine the spread and pervasiveness of tea use in the colonies. This essay therefore employs a personal diary, works of art, archaeological finds, documentary accounts, and several sets of probate documents from estates representing different regions and degrees of wealth in order to identify the types of objects associated with tea drinking in America and to test the extent of their distribution throughout the general population.

Early Eighteenth-Century Tea Drinking:

The Diary of William Byrd (1674-1744)

In the early eighteenth century, the uses of tea in the American colonies were largely medicinal and ceremonial. The so-called secret diary kept in shorthand code by William Byrd allows us to look at the early use of hot beverages by one of Virginia’s wealthiest men (Byrd 1941). For nearly four years, from February 1709 to September 1712, Byrd made entries in his diary almost every day. The entries are repetitive in their mention of his personal habits, and it is therefore likely that the diary offers a somewhat accurate record of his use of hot beverages, Byrd recorded only a few details relative to his drinking behavior and did not identify the household items relating to it. Fewer than 10 percent of his daily entries mention tea, chocolate, or coffee drinking, with tea being noted most frequently. In other words, for this very wealthy, early Virginia gentleman, who clearly could have afforded to make a habit of tea drinking, it does not appear to have been a daily ritual. The few mentions of tea in the diary are, however, revealing.

The Diary of William Byrd (1674-1744)

In the early eighteenth century, the uses of tea in the American colonies were largely medicinal and ceremonial. The so-called secret diary kept in shorthand code by William Byrd allows us to look at the early use of hot beverages by one of Virginia’s wealthiest men (Byrd 1941). For nearly four years, from February 1709 to September 171a, Byrd made entries in his diary almost every day. The entries are repetitive in their mention of his personal habits, and it is therefore likely that the diary offers a somewhat accurate record of his use of hot beverages, Byrd recorded only a few details relative to his drinking behavior and did not identify the household items relating to it. Fewer than id percent of his daily entries mention tea, chocolate, or coffee drinking, with tea being noted most frequently. In other words, for this very wealthy, early Virginia gentleman, who clearly could have afforded to make a habit of tea drinking, it does not appear to have been a daily ritual. The few mentions of tea in the diary are, however, revealing.

Tea, as noted above, was often associated at this time with the treatment of illness or with formal ceremonies of official greeting and not as refreshment offered to guests after dinner or in the evening. Nor was it a breakfast beverage, Byrd’s usual breakfast consisted of milk, served boiled rather than cold. On the infrequent mornings when he drank tea, which he often referred to as “milk tea,” taken with bread and butter, he some-times mentioned being sick. He seems to have suffered from malaria for which he also drank sage tea and a bark infusion. Although he hosted many overnight guests at Westover, his plantation on the James River, he rarely mentions tea offered for breakfast on these occasions. The major exception is the visit of Governor Spotswood in June of 1710. Byrd offered tea to the governor on three mornings and chocolate on the fourth. When in Williamsburg on business, Byrd met with the governor and other officials in the morning. Tea, or occasion-ally chocolate, was served at these times. It seems to have been presented as a kind of salute, a formal recognition of status or membership at the beginning of their discussions.

Unlike tea, Byrd does seem to have thought of chocolate as a breakfast beverage. He mentions it about two-thirds as often as he does tea. He records that he drank chocolate with the women who were attending his wife when she gave birth to a son in June 1709, Otherwise his references are not connected with specific occasions. He mentions drinking coffee only four times: with the governor (July 5 and 6, 1710), with women (March 1711), and at home with visitors (April 9, 1711). He notes visits to Williamsburg’s coffeehouses, however, on more than sixty days. Although he played cards, gambled, and frequently lost money in these establishments, he may not have been drinking coffee. On October 29,1710, he wrote, “Walked to the coffeehouse where I drank two dishes of tea.” At the time when Byrd was writing, tea was about to begin its slow climb to dominance among hot beverages. Although merchants had sporadically imported tea from China to England and then to the American Colonies in the late seventeenth century, the East India Company only secured partial access to the Port of Canton in 1713. Direct and regular shipments of tea from China began in 1717 (Chaudhuri 1978,388). Shortly thereafter, British artists depicted elite and middle-class families gathered around tea tables (see Smith, this volume). These scenes tell us much of what we know about behavior surrounding tea drinking. For the American colonies, however, visual depictions of tea equipment are rare. The earliest, dated around 1730, is a portrait from New York of Susanna Truax at the age of about four (fig. 6.1), This painting, attributed to the artist known as the “Gansevoort Limner,” possibly Pieter Vanderlyn, reflects the early presence of the Dutch in New York. The Dutch were in fact among the first to bring tea to North America. In the painting, the young girl is shown standing beside a tea table. A small teapot rests on a protective stand or pad with a cup and saucer and a sugar dish nearby. Susanna, who seems to be eating sugar with a spoon, drank her tea with a minimum of equipment. One can only assume that somewhere in her family’s house was a kettle or container for boiling the water and some sort of canister or box for holding tea.

Tea among the Chesapeake Elite:

Objects in Sixty-Eight Inventories, 1741-1760 An analysis of sixty-eight probate inventories dating from 1741 to 1760 expands the picture of the equipment considered essential for social tea drinking. These documents are the earliest in a larger group of 325 representing the top 5 percent of wealth holders in selected areas of northern Virginia and Maryland.

Only one of these sixty-eight decedent, Jeremiah Greenhan of Richmond, Virginia, who died January 1, 1753, did not own equipment relating to hot beverages. A few show possession of miscellaneous items suggesting that the service of these new drinks was either unlikely or hardly expressive of a set social ritual. For instance John Glasscock of Richmond lifted “I Coffy Pot” at 5 shillings in July 1756. In the same year John Spann Webb owned “Dozn silver Teaspoons” valued at 20 shillings. Nearly every other decedent owned significant equipment for tea, as well as some for coffee and chocolate. For example, the inventory of Hugh West, entered in Fairfax, Virginia, in 1755, was valued in two parts. Personal property or household furnishings, slaves, an indentured servant, and livestock at the home plantation totaled £399 17s.7d. Property at the slaves’ quarters came to £299 8s, 6d for a total value of £699 8s.6d. Hot beverage items were scattered through the list for the home plantation only.

The values immediately following the items are subtotals, which are added with other items to yield the total given at the far right. West’s hot beverage service amounted to a tiny fraction of his total estate, £ 3 8s or less than half of I percent. Fourteen slaves and a servant woman accounted for £355 Ios. Among the furniture, a slock appraised at £9 was the single most valuable item. West not own much plate, only silver table spoons” valued at £8 in addition to the teaspoons and tongs. Beds, because of the labor-intensive textiles that furnished them, were assigned high values ranging from £2 to £2. In contrast “2 Negro’s beds and Furniture” were a mere 10 shillings. Entries of a Bible at 5 shillings and old Baskets” and “I Frying pan” both at I shilling 6 pence illuminate the relatively small amounts of cash required to purchase hot beverage equipment.

Of note, teakettles of the sort referred to in the West inventory were rather plain flat-bottomed vessels, usually made of copper with hinged handles suspended from above the spout to the opposite side. They could be placed directly on a hearth right. West’s hot beverage service amounted to a tiny fraction of his total estate, £3 8s or less than half of 1 percents Fourteen slaves and a servant woman accounted for £355 10s. Among the furniture, a clock appraised at £9 was die single most valuable item. West did not own much plate, only “11 silver table spoons” valued at £8 in addition to the teaspoons and tongs. Beds, because of die labor-intensive textiles that furnished them, were assigned high values ranging from £2 to £6. In contrast Negros beds and Furniture” were a mere 10 shillings. Entries of a Bible at 5 shillings and “2 old Baskets” and “I Frying pan” both at 1 shilling 6 pence illuminate the relatively small amounts of cash required to purchase hot beverage equipment.

Of note, teakettles of the sort referred to in the West inventory were rather plain flat-bottomed vessels, usually made of copper with hinged handles suspended from above the spout to the opposite side. They could be placed directly on a hearth or grate or hung over an open fire. It is likely that a servant or slave would have performed the controlled pouring required to direct the boiling water into the teapot either in the kitchen or at the tea table. The hostess then poured the tea from the teapot into cups and offered it along with sugar and milk or cream to her family or guests. Any tea or leaves remaining in the cups were poured into a slop dish before more tea was served. West’s ownership of four teapots is fairly typical. Very few decedents owned just one. The only essential item missing is a jug for milk or cream.

Appraisers seem automatically to have separated tea and dinner services, as the two almost never appear listed together in inventories. They were used for different events, and the equipment for each seems rarely to have matched. Tea items made of silver may be grouped with all other silver Items, ranging from shoe buckles to soup tureens, and sometimes the objects themselves are not identified with only the total weight of the silver and its value cited. Although West s appraisers did not identify the rooms where they found his personal property, other documents from the late 1750s on are more likely to associate tea wares with dining rooms and parlors than with private chambers. Kettles often show up in kitchens or with other cooking equipment.

The Maryland lawyer Daniel Dulaney (1685-1753) became one of that colony’s wealthiest officials and largest landowners. At his death he left personal property worth £10,921 9s.8d, including 187 slaves, substantial loans, and about ten thousand acres of land in five counties. Personal property in his Annapolis mansion was valued at £3,062 2s.1o-1/4d and included 2,594 ounces of silver with a total value of £415 His hot beverage service-iternized in the rooms where it was kept and used—was impressive, elegant, and in a few instances unusual. Spoon boats or saucers or rests for spoons do not often appear in American inventories. References to table linens associated with tea are even less common. Dulaney’s Tea Table Cloths” are unprecedented, especially since they are accompanied with an additional five old and four very small cloths and thirty tea napkins. In addition there was a cover for the “Japan’d Tea table.”

Because the silver items are assigned a collective value. a total for the hot beverage service is not possible. Appraised values for items other than silver amount to £23 18s.rd They range from “2 Stone Tea Pots 1 Ditto Milk Pot” at 1 shilling to Japan’d Tea table and Covering for Ditto” at 15 shillings. For comparison, “Mouse Traps and 5 Ratt Ditto” came to 4 shillings 6 pence and two “Ivory fans carved 6c painted” were worth £3 7s.6d. Furniture had greater value, an “Eight Day Clocks at £10, “Twelve Silk damask bottoms Mah^ajany Chairs with Linnen Covers” at £18, and “Three Dotto [pictures] by Wollaston” at £28 7s.

Among Dulaney’s silver tea wares was “I Tea Kettle Lamp. And Stand, Two other decedents in this group of sixty-eight owned less-valuable examples of this form, These kettles were not kitchen equipment (fig. 6.3). During the serving of tea, water kept hot with a spirit lamp positioned underneath the belly of the kettle, wag poured into the teapot to brew more tea. The stands were usually low, intended to rest on the tea table itself or on a small stand or table just big enough for the kettle. Among these decedents Henry Fitzhugh (Stafford County, Virginia, 1742) was the second owner of a “tea kettle & lamp.” His was brass valued at sixteen shillings. No American paintings depict a tea kettle of this type. In British scenes of tea drinking, servants attend them, possibly because the open spirit lamps and hinged handles were potentially dangerous. Safer were the hot water urns that appear later in the eighteenth century. Instead of an open lamp, a solid metal cote that had been heated in the open fire was placed inside the container to keep the water hot. It flowed from a spout into the teapot (figs. 6.4,6.5).

Food of any sort is uncommon in probate documents. Tea and sugar, nonetheless, appear in Dulaney’s inventory. It mentions three types of tea – hyson (a Chinese green tea made from twisted leaves that are long and thin), bohea (a Chinese black tea that derives its name from the Wuyi mountains in Fujian Province), and congo (or congou, a finer type of Chinese black tea, the name of which is derived from kong-hu, meaning “well-worked” or “pains taken”), along with several grades of sugar. Other miscellaneous items from this group of inventories include a “Glass Tea canister” (fessie Ball, 1747) and “6 small Silver hafted Tea Knives” (Henry Holland Hawkins, Most tea wares were ceramic, not glass. Tea knives are very rare, and those with solid silver handles would have been expensive.

Expanding Distribution
of Tea Drinking and Its Equipage

If roughly five percent of the richest decedents in the Chesapeake owned impressive equipment for serving tea and other hot beverages between 1741 and 1760, what can be learned about its distribution among the rest of the population? Anecdotal evidence suggests interest in tea equipment and tea drinking was spreading throughout the social order. In 1744 Dr. Alexander Hamilton of Annapolis headed north on a pleasure trip hoping to improve his health. From New York, he and Mr. Milne, formerly a churchman in Albany, traveled up the Hudson River. When their sloop tied up on the west bank to collect water, the men entered a small log cottage that was home to a husband, wife, and seven children, While the parents were otherwise occupied and the children gathered blackberries, the visitors rather ungraciously passed judgment on the family’s furnishings, Mr. Milne thought a pail with water would make a satisfactory substitute for the looking glass with its painted frame and that wooden spoons and plates should replace the worn out but bright pewter. The stone tea dishes and teapot were “quite unnecessary” (Bridenbaugh 1948,55).

Clearly, however, the family had other ideas about the role of tea equipage in their lives, and they were not alone. Throughout the colonies Americans were buying teapots,cups and saucers, and other items. Those made of silver, hard-paste porcelain from China (fig. 6.6), or soft-paste porcelain from England were expensive, but similar items, made of lead, or tin-glazed earthenware or stoneware (fig, 6,7), were available at low prices,

As the century progressed, innovations in ceramic production further expanded the range of available wares in terms of price and appearance. Poorer customers with only small amounts of cash or limited credit could, therefore, participate in this new consumer revolution. Hot beverages represent only a small fraction of the consumer goods that began to make the lives of people in Europe and America more pleasant, comfortable, and aesthetically pleasing. A major transformation in both demand and production was well underway by the middle of the eighteenth century. The list of industrial inventions exploded. Nearly every category of household furnishing was affected – textiles, metal cooking wares, table knives and forks, other dining equipage, looking glasses, prints and paintings, and so forth. Previously only the wealthy were entitled to display fancy clothes and indulge in luxuries. Gradually, however, ordinary people assumed the right to spend a little money and express personal taste. As they bought new equipment and learned to use it, they abandoned traditional folk ways and became early consumers.

Modem historians estimate that by the time of the Revolution about two-thirds of white adults could have had tea every day (Shammas 1990,64). Some years earlier in 1759, Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale, traveled to Cape Cod where he counted 1,940 families of whom 1,500, or 77 percent drank tea (Stiles 1916,31). There is also limited evidence of interest in tea drinking among African Americans and Native Americans. A few African American and Native American potters were sufficiently familiar with tea wares to have copied European shapes in ordinary earthenware. In 1761 Stiles sketched the location of a tea table that he observed in the Niantic, Connecticut, wigwam of the Native American sisters Phebe and Elizabeth Moheege (fig. 6.8). Their dwelling was also furnished with a shelf with plates, two chests, a second table, a dresser, and six chairs. There were mats for beds (Stiles, 1916,155). There also exists evidence of African American tea use and tea ware manufacture (fig. 6.9). When Jullian Ursyn Niemcewicz from Poland visited Mount Vernon in 1797, he wrote:

We entered one of the huts of the blacks, for one can not call them by the name of houses. They are more miserable than the most miserable of the cottages of our peasants. The husband and wife sleep on a mean pallet, the children on the ground; a very bad fireplace, some utensils for cooking, but in the middle of this poverty some cups and a teapot. [Niemcewicz 1965,100-101]

Probate Evidence from the Chesapeake and from Pennsylvania, 1774

Two other groups of inventories, all taken in 1774, help to refine these views and suggest a more limited pattern of ownership of hot leverage service items. These samples are statistically accurate and range from poorest to the richest decedents in two geographic location, several counties in Maryland and Virginia and three areas in Pennsylvania.

The 143 inventories from Anne Arundel and Queen Anne Counties in Maryland and eight counties in Virginia serve as a counterbalance to the group of documents that focus on wealthier decedents in the Chesapeake from 1741 to 1760. Hot beverage items appear in just over half of the inventories (seventy four). Fourteen decedents owned equipment for serving both tea and coffee, three for both tea and chocolate. Only two mentioned coffee without tea. The dividing point falls at the estate value of about £500, but the poorer people were not ignoring all the new refinements associated with the emerging desire for and acquisition of consumer goods.

The three areas of Pennsylvania represented include two rural counties and Philadelphia. In Northampton County to the north along the Delaware River nearly everyone farmed and no one was wealthy. Of twenty-one decedents, there was one widow, one laborer-weaver, and one farmer-cooper. In Westmoreland County, well toward the west along the border with Maryland, the eight decedents were a mix of yeomen, farmers, and a single weaver. Eight of the total twenty-nine documents contain some mention of coffee or tea, but none attests social consumption. For instance, T.Jamison of Westmoreland owned a single “coffey mill” and S. Wilson “a tea pot” valued at 3 shillings 5 pence. In Northhampton the widow Frederick’s estate included “1 coffee mill” at 4 shillings 6 pence and a “tea pot.”

In Philadelphia County the 134 decedents were mainly artisans and merchants with a few farmers. Not surprisingly, equipment for the service of hot beverages was more wide-spread and differed according to wealth groups. The useful breaking point is again £500, Above that, nearly all decedents owned some object associated with tea, coffee, or chocolate.

The three areas of Pennsylvania represented include two rural counties and Philadelphia. In Northampton County to the north along the Delaware River nearly everyone fanned and no one was wealthy. Of twenty-one decedents, there was one widow, one laborer-weaver, and one farmer-cooper. In Westmoreland County, well toward the west along the border with Maryland, the eight decedents were a mix of yeomen, farmers, and a single weaver. Eight of the total twenty-nine documents contain some mention of coffee or tea, but none suggests social consumption. For instance, T. Jamison of Westmoreland owned a single “coffey mill” and S. Wilson “a tea pot” valued at 3 shillings 5 pence. In Northampton the widow Frederick’s estate included “1 coffee mill” at 4 shillings 6 pence and a “tea pot.”

In Philadelphia County the 134 decedents were mainly artisans and merchants with a few farmers. Not surprising, equipment for the service of hot beverages was more widespread and differed according to wealth groups. The useful breaking point is again £500. Above that, nearly all decedents owned some object associated with tea, coffee, or chocolate.

Below that amount, roughly half were so equipped. It is reasonable to read these numbers as confirmation of Devereaux Jarratt’s experience and even of Ezra Stileses somewhat higher numbers for tea drinkers on Cape Cod. While Pennsylvania, especially during the 1750s and early 17608, was sometimes called the best poor man’s country, by the 1770s it is likely that between one-fourth and one-third of its free population lived precariously. Poorer people struggled to meet basic expenses for food, shelter, and clothing. Even the modest price of a kettle, teapot, and a few cups exceeded their budgets (B. Smith 1981,202).

Eighty-two the 134 Philadelphia County inventories list some hot beverage Item-seventy-eight for tea, forty-eight for coffee, and five for chocolate. The overlap is significant. Only two inventories mention chocolate without tea or coffee, and another two note coffee without tea. The seventy-eight tea takers (58 percent) were far from uniform in what they owned. Three quarters listed teakettles (60 of 78) and crockery of some sort (59 of 78), often specified as Chine, blue and white, Queensware, Burnt, stoneware, earthenware, tea cups and saucers, or tea ware. Teapots, sugar bowls, milk or cream jugs, and slop basins may have on occasion been lumped with the ceramics, but they also appear separately. Teapots are mentioned in only twenty-eight inventories. Two were specified as silver and came with stands, In addition, there were three tea urns. Cream jugs appear in seventeen inventories and ten of them were of silver. Sugar bowls (8) and slop basins (2) were less likely to be identified. Nearly half the decedents owned tea tables (39 of 78) and teaspoons (37 of 78). About a quarter owned sugar tongs (22 of 78). More than half the spoons (20 of 37) and the tongs (12 of 22) were of silver. Canisters or chests (29) appear in more than a quarter. Trays, often itemized as “waiters” or “salvers,” show up less frequently (16 of 78). There were very few stands (8 of 78). The blizzard of objects, materials, and prices reveals buyers taking advantage of the wide range of similar goods available in shops. Even so, while many took tea, few had the equipment to impress their guests with a complete service for a large company.

Tea drinkers also drank coffee. By about 1750 European growers had secured fertile seeds from “yemenite traders and were growing coffee in the mountains of the South American coast and the Caribbean islands. The relative importance of the tea and coffee trades and the preference for the beverages during these decades is, however, obscure. Only two of the inventories of 1774 mention coffee or its equipment without any reference to tea. Both are mentioned in 46 inventories. Two documents simply refer to coffee or a “coffee can.” Two others specify coffee cups. More frequent in their appearance are mills for grinding (24) and pots (26). Materials are rarely specified. Four coffee pots were made of copper and two of silver. Roasters were scarce, appearing in only three estates, but beans might have been either purchased roasted and ground or roasted at home in a sauce or frying pan.

Five inventories list chocolate. Two of the decedents were shopkeepers who sold the commodity but did not own any equipment for its preparation. Three men, a merchant, an innkeeper, and an apothecary owned chocolate pots. The merchants and apothecary’s estates were valued at well over £500 the innkeeper at lets than £100. All three also owned equipment related to both tea and coffee.

Tea’s dominance over coffee and especially chocolate seems to have persisted into the very early nineteenth century. This is of note because it is a commonly held belief that today s preference for coffee over tea in the United States stemmed directly from the role of tea in the Revolution (see Merritt, this volume). The affluent Samels family, for example, chose to be painted at a tilt-top tea table (fig, 6.10). Similarly, portraits of Mrs. Reuben Humphreys (ca. 18oo) and Mrs. Calmes (1806) feature elegant tea ware prominently (figs, 6.11, 6.12). There no way to tell conclusively what: beverage the young African American serving girl ii offering to those in John Lewis Krimmel’s painting of a quilting party (fig. 6.13), By the second decade of the nineteenth century coffee had begun to dominate the hot beverage market in the United States. Just as the opportunity to trade at Canton after 1713 led to the preference for tea in Britain and her colonies, when the interests of American merchants expanded into the coffee trade of the Caribbean islands and South America, the buying and drinking public eventually began to follow. By 1827 African American butler Robert Roberts was instructing young servants to fill their trays with “one cup of tea between every two of coffee, as they [the guests] generally take more coffee than tea at the first round” (Roberts 1827,62). The switch was assured by the 1840s when American merchants came to control the international buyings roasting, grinding, packaging and selling of coffee to an international market (MacDonald, forthcoming). This did not, however, indicate the demise of tea.

As the foregoing evidence suggests, while tea, tea wares, and social tea drinking were important in the eighteenth century, they were not universal. Wealthy urban families in Europe and America initially began to serve tea on social occasions. They bought significant quantities of equipment and used it according to precise rules of conduct and performance. About 1750, however, people with less money began to express their social ambitions and took advantage of the wares that producers were supplying in many materials and designs and at a wide range of price levels. Even so, many poor families (generally those with estates valued below 500) chose not to indulge in the luxury of hot tea.

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