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Tea And The Middle Class

Woodruff D. Smith

IN THE EUROPEAN WORLD, talking tea in company at home or In certain kinds of public establishments has long been identified as a particularly middle-class thing to do (Martin-Fugier 1990,274-77). Why this identification should be made so automatically is something of a mystery. Social tea drinking initially became a fashion in Europe in the seventeenth century not among the "middle classes" but rather among aristocrats, among people who thought of themselves as fashionable and genteel, and among seekers after exotic experiences (Smith 2002,75-76; Cowan 2005,16-30). Well before the middle of the nineteenth century, at least in Great Britain, tea drinking had been adopted by a significant segment of the industrial and agricultural working classes (Mintz 1986, 141-50). The explanation that is usually given for the extension of tea throughout society - that the middle class imitated the upper class in the eighteenth century, while the working class imitated the middle class in the nineteenth - does not account for the peculiar identification of tea with the middle class.

The solution to the mystery lies in recognizing that, up until the late nineteenth century, much of the historical phenomenon we call the "middle class" consisted distinctive set of cultural patterns - meaningful practices attached in common understanding to particular sets of ideas, attitudes, and commodities - which were adopted by people of varied background as signs of their individual self-respect and their collective place in society. These patterns derived from many sources, but they were put together in a particular way in the Atlantic world in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Patterns were embodied quite consciously in an array of rituals of daily life that, despite their apparent ordinariness, were full of implied meanings - primarily moral meanings, but with multiple social and political implications. Tea was a central part of several of these rituals, and "respectability" was the term that, by the late eighteenth century, was typically used to refer to their meanings (Smith 2002, 189 - 221). If you took tea at the proper time and place, in the proper way, with the proper equipment, it meant more than anything else that you were respectable.

Did it also mean that you belonged to the middle class?

If "middle class' refers to a distinct set of people following certain occupations and located in a social hierarchy somewhere between the landed aristocracy and the wage-earning classes (or if it refers to Karl Marx's "bourgeoisie," the owners of capital), not necessarily. Plenty of people outside the range of these rather vague boundaries thought of themselves as respectable and acted respectably, and their numbers increased in the course of the nineteenth century. But until the latter part of that century, it was people who could see themselves as fitting into the middle range of recognized hierarchies who perceived themselves as having the greatest need to manifest their respectability in ritual and who fashioned their notion of themselves as a class primarily around it.

A crucial aspect of middle-class culture was a set of implied claims about the social standing of the people who adopted the rituals of respectability and about their relationship to their nations. In certain regards, acting respectably could be taken as a statement that one belonged to a status group morally distinct from the typical members of other groups: a "middle" class that, because of its manifest virtues, because of its moderation (another quality suggested by "middle"), and because its members possessed sufficient income to ensure their moral autonomy, ranked above the various lower orders that supposedly did not possess these attributes and was entitled to real respect from the traditional upper classes, which possessed them in insufficient quantities (Smith 2002, 204-10). From this perspective, members of the middle class did not so much want to rise into the upper class as to establish an identity for themselves that was morally equivalent or superior. The rituals of respectability thus acted as markers of "distinction" in Pierre Bourdieu's sense of the term: they set the middle class apart in an honorable way (Bourdieu 1984). At the same time, however, respectability was portrayed throughout most of Europe and the Atlantic world as the ideal culture of the nation as a whole. On such a basis, the middle class could claim (and politicians could claim for them) the role of cultural and moral center of the nation. The British historian Thomas B. Macaulay did this, for example, in his speeches in 1831 supporting parliamentary reform (Macaulay 1980, 11: 415-16).

These overlapping but not identical assertions incorporated, among other things,a request to participate in politics and a demand that the aristocracy acknowledge the grounds on which the middle class rested its respect for itself. By the nineteenth century, people describing the essential features of their nations - whether France or Britain or Germany, whether the United States or Australia—typically included the elements of respectability in their descriptions, with the further implication that one of the things that made their particular nation superior to others was the larger degree to which the national character embodied the moral values of respectability. This implication is suggested by a cartoon that contrasts a Frenchmans understanding of the practices of tea taking with those of his more competent (and more attract tively portrayed) English hosts (fig. 5.1). In consequence, people who thought of themselves as belonging to classes other than the middle class and who wished either to retain a leading place in national politics (in the case of established upper-class groups) or to claim such a place for the first time (in the case of politically active segments of the modem working class) consciously adopted significant aspects of the culture of respectability - in the latter case producing the "respectable working class." In doing so, they were not claiming to belong to the middle class; they were asserting membership in the moral community of the nation and their right to share the national identity

Why tea? Tea was far from the only commodity employed in the rituals of respectability, and its importance in this regard varied considerably from country to country. (It was especially prominent in Great Britain, where most of the practices of respectable tea taking in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries appear to have developed.) What made tea particularly important was the wide range of ways in which its use could be understood within middle-class culture. That culture can be visualized as consisting of a number of different contexts: connections of practices and meanings that became linked to each other, mostly in the eighteenth century, to form a single entity. By looking at the apparent meanings of tea in each of them, it is possible to appreciate the role of tea in the culture of respectability and to understand the process by which the middle classes of the Atlantic world used tea to identify themselves, both individually and collectively.


Tea became fashionable in Western Europe more or less simultaneously with coffee in the second half of the seventeenth century (see Hohenegger, p. 127 of this volume). What that meant was that tea, as a commodity consumed in a manner supposedly similar to the way it was taken by the upper orders of Chinese society, found a place in a distinct cultural context: the modes of behavior exhibited by people who consciously wished to signify that they were "gentlemen" and "ladies," that they possessed the manners of the hereditary aristocracy and pedigrees sufficiently distinguished to allow them to be accounted members of that class (if sometimes only on the fringes of it). One of the modes that made up this context of gentility was the adoption of changing fashions in dress, literary interests, aesthetic tastes, and consumer goods. Gentility had been constructed in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as a cultural pattern that highlighted qualities all members of the social elite were supposed to possess, regardless of their specific ranks,and that set them off collectively from other people (Bryson 1998). It was presumed by convention that most of these people possessed land and titles, but the pattern was sufficiently flexible that people at the upper ends of the professions, officials, the descendants of prosperous merchants, and the like could adopt it as well.

In the late seventeenth century, consuming tea in a moderately ceremonious and quasi-Chinese way, using, if possible, porcelain cups and Chinese teapots imported from China, was a very significant ritual of gentility. It was part of a broader fashion for material objects (especially expensive ones) that were Chinese in origin, pattern, or at least suggestion. This fashion for chinoiserie is illustrated by figure 5.2, a magnificent French tapestry of the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century (Honour 1961). It depicts the Chinese imperial family taking tea in high style, but also in the open air. Most of the conventions of portrayal are European, but most of the figures are dressed in a manner that lets the viewer know that the locale is the exotic and (at the time) greatly admired Empire of China. Here, tea is placed in a framework that refers simultaneously to its overseas origins, to its association with the most exalted social levels of the most prestigious monarchy in the world, and to the combination of ritual and restrained informality (the domestic scene, the outdoor setting) that characterized the early modern culture of gentility.

Tapestries of this sort were specifically made for people of the highest rank in European society and could be afforded only by the very wealthy. This meant that although they were sometimes purchased by rich families who were not noble and by nonaristocratic institutions such as city governments, they were not practically available to merely well-to-do individuals, People at the middle levels of income could, however, buy other commodities related to genteel tea taking. Figure shows a tripod tea table clearly made for the aristocratic market around 1680, at the height of the fashion for tea and at about the time at which European tea rituals were beginning to diverge from imagined Chinese models. This particular table was presumably quite expensive, although probably affordable for the families of moderately wealthy business-people and officials who wanted to announce their gentility. The style and decoration could, however, be readily reproduced at lower prices and on a larger scale by craftsmen working in substantial shops. In the eighteenth century, so-called populuxe renditions of tea furniture became a staple of Parisian high-quality industry, and less-expensive versions were produced in many parts of Europe—even in the Americas (Auslander 1996,110 - 30), The same thing happened with the equipment needed to serve and consume tea. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, manufacturers in several European countries struggled to reproduce the porcelain that made Chinese pottery desirable as a sign of gentility. Eventually they did so, creating expensive and high-quality porcelain tea services intended for aristocratic customers. But in the early eighteenth century, good quality, very tasteful tea pottery was also available at lower prices, either produced in Europe or made to European specifications and imported from China, which met demand from a larger "middle-class" public (Hildyard 1999,70-91).

Such products permitted families who could not even hint at aristocratic origins or great wealth to make a claim to gentility on the grounds of participating in the rituals of tea and adopting the fashions connected with tea taking in an appropriately tasteful way. But something happened both to tea and to gentility in this process (which was replicated with hundreds of other rituals and commodities between the mid-seventeenth and the mid-eighteenth centuries). Tea taking and the behaviors constructed around it ceased to be "fashionable " in their original sense, but instead of disappearing and being replaced by newer fashions, they became permanent features of European and Atlantic social life. Also, the network of meanings associated with tea as a sign of gentility changed—not completely, but substantially.

In essence, gentility came to be absorbed into the cultural framework of respectability (Smith 2002,171 - 75,204 - 10).It retained some of its elements and! language ("gentleman"and "lady," for instance), but these were reinterpreted to refer to a different array of meanings. Adopting genteel practices such as tea taking in a respectable context signified a demand for esteem based much more heavily on the obvious moral standing of the people who adopted them than on pedigree or even income. Hie latter retained some importance, which was, however, increasingly expressed in terms of the manifest virtue of families and the legitimacy of the way in which the income was obtained, (Of course, the older construction of gentility as indicating aristocratic status also continued to exist into the nineteenth century as t separate part of the European cultural repertoire, but tea played only a small role in it)

Tea was particularly important among the cultural practices denoting respectable gentility because it possessed, from the time of its fashionable consumption in Europe in the seventeenth century, meanings in two other contexts that contributed to the formation of the culture of respectability in the eighteenth century: a context that treated the conscious maintenance of physical health as evidence of moral standsing, and another that presented the family as the principal institution that framed and supported an orderly, sympathetic, and civilized society, Both of these contexts became essential features of middle-class life and values.

Health and Well-Being

Tea became important in Europe in the seventeenth century mainly because it was fashionable and a sign of status, hut it was initially imported and for many years sold as a drug: as a means of improving and maintaining health through diet. This remains of course, one of tea s main selling points today. In the late seventeenth century, tea s medicinal properties were both exaggerated and denied. The Dutch physician Cornelis Bontekoe made himself famous by claiming that drinking thirty or more cups of tea a day would ensure perfect health, while ethers asserted that tea was unhealthy, among other reasons because it endangered masculinity (Bontekoe 1689). But by the eighteenth century, published opinion was generally favorable. Some saw tea as a means of counteracting the dangerous effects of consuming excessive sugar, which may have ted to (and certainly justified) the growing tendency to take tea and sugar together.

Two early examples of the large "health and diet" literature on sugar may be seen in figures 5.4 and 5.5, both popular treatises in French published in the 1680s. Traites nouveaux curieux du cafe, du the et du chocolate (A New and Curious Treatise on Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate; fig. 5.5) is particularly interesting because its author, a merchant named Philippe Sylvestre Dufour,explicitly relates tea not only to contexts of gentility and health but also to a view of society in which merchants can insist on respect from the aristocracy and from educated people on the basis of the knowledge of the world merchants have obtained and the personal virtue they have displayed while conducting the kind of trade that brings tea to Europe (Dufour 1685, preface). This demand suggests an assertive consck)usness of class on Dufour's part, although its scope is limited to merchants in international trade. The process of constructing a broader conception of the middle class around the culture of respectability is shown by what happened to the context of health in the early eighteenth century:

it became the center of a cultural framework in which the act of regularly taking care of one's own health and that of one's family served as evidence of general virtue, and therefore of fitness to be respected and trusted by the rest of society. If a merchant did business at a teahouse rather than a tavern, or if family members took tea together in an appropriate way at home, it showed not only that they laid claim to a species of gentility based on a presumption of moral standing but also that they had sufficient regard for their health and sobriety to be accounted responsible people.

The same factors also required that people who consumed commodities such as tea concern themselves with threats from harmful ingredients substituted for the real things by unscrupulous importers or manufacturers. A large pamphlet literature on the subject of adulterated foods found an audience not just because it purported to deal with a topic important in its own right but also because the act of demonstrating concern about dangers to health had meaning In the context of respectability (fig. 5.6).

Domesticity and the Family

One of the best-known characteristics of the culture of respectability and of the middle class in general was the concept of the nuclear family as the foundation of civilized society - as the social location at which people learned virtuous behavior and where sentiment and pleasure (even erotic pleasure) could be safely experienced in an appropriately moral setting (Hall 1990; Smith 2002,171-87). Although the ritual performance that constituted the meal of "tea" in Britain was initially constructed in a context of gentility, it obtained most of its significance within this framework of domesticity, The ritual delineated the proper place of the respectable, adult, married woman in the world: she presided over the proceedings, organizing the distribution of sustenance and ensuring the maintenance of propriety and the use of appropriate language. Men, whether members of die family or guests, accepted symbolic secondary roles, whereas in other places they expected to be deferred to by the other members of their families. Many illustrations of the time display variations on the theme of tea as a meal over which the lady of the family is supposed to preside, although in some cases the portrayal is satirical or comic (figs, 5,7,5,8, and see fig. 5,1), Part of the rather cruel "humor" of a late eighteenth-century cartoon of an "old maid" drinking tea with only her cat for company (fig. 5.9) is that the lady does not haw a family - particularly a husband - to give meaning to the ritual in which she is engaged.

Tea could also be consumed respectably in domestic set-tings without the presence of members of both sexes and without being explicitly a family ritual. It was, for example, the favored beverage for sociable gatherings of middle-class or aristocratic women in each other houses, manifesting the moral and upright character of the event in a way that wine or spirits would not have done, Such gatherings could easily be satirized in the misogynistic mode of much of eighteenth-century humor,a frequent theme of which was the irresponsibility and silliness of women. Figures 5.10 and 5.11, the first from the nineteenth century and the second probably from the early-to-mid eighteenth, show women at tea where, instead of engaging in appropriately modest conversation, they are gossiping. Many aspects of respectability lent themselves to comic resentation and to satire—either on the grounds that actual behavior in rituals such as tea did not correspond to the meanings they were supposed to embody or because they were occasions for outright hypocrisy.

In die culture of respectability and in middle-class practice, a principal function of the family was educating children to become civilized adults able to take on their social responsibilities. One of the ways in which families performed this function was by trying to structure children's play as a kind of role-performance, a rehearsal for the rituals of adult life - A significant part of the expanding demand for toys in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries resulted from such intentions (Plumb 1982). A miniature tea set (fig, 5.12) was thus possibly intended to be used as a toy by children to replicate adult tea taking or also employed by adults to teach children how to I behave at tea.

Domesticating and Colonizing the Exotic

Initially one of the principal attractions of tea in Europe was the fact that, like many other desirable consumables such as coffee, pepper, sugar, and the major spices, it came from somewhere else in the world. The appeal of tea as an exotic import rested originally on its identification with the civilization of China and with Chinese medicinal practice. These identifications made tea fashionable among the self-styled upper-class gentlemen who distinguished themselves through their interests in science and in non-European societies and though their possession and understanding of unusual objects from around the globe (Cowan 2005,10-14). In addition to the other meanings they possess, the tapestry (see fig. 5.2) and the cover of the treatise (sec fig. 5.5) clearly suggest the concerns of virtuoso exoticism - the former by representing appreciation on the part of its owner of Chinese civilization, the latter by advertising the esoteric knowledge divulged within.

In the eighteenth century, such concerns migrated into the culture of respectability, becoming an integral and extremely important part of the conceptual equipment of the middle class. Knowledge of the world overseas and the use of commodities that displayed such knowledge represented the claims of middle-class people of belonging to the "public" - the part of society that discussed matters of general importance and took a legitimate part in determining society's consensus on them (Habermas 1989), At the same time, exotic items needed to be suitably domesticated, to be made consistent to be suitably domesticated, to be made consistent with the values of respectable Western society (which were increasingly assumed to be superior in level of civilization to all others.) The exotic had, in other words, to be made in some sense ordinary.

The commodities and practices associated with tea show the process of domestication very clearly. Explicit, if not always accurate, depictions of Chinese people and settings tended to be replaced by representations of Europeans performing Western rituals. No one forgot that tea came from China (at least until the mid-nineteenth century), but it arrived in Europe under Western terms and fitted into patterns of usage that conformed to the culture of the Western middle classes一that is, to respectability. In a significant way, domesticating the exotic in Europe was part of the same process as the colonizing of exotic places overseas by Europeans.

The results of this connection cun be teen by comparing the respectful admiration of what purports to be China in the tapestry from the seventeenth century (see fig. 5.2) with a belittling cartoon that mocks the ceremony of the imperial Chinese court by portraying it as a parade of teapots (fig. 5.14). The latter is typical of British representations of China in the aftermath of Britain's first (quite unsuccessful) official embassy to the Chinese emperor in 1793 (Spence 1991,122 - 23). These representations ridicule Chinese pretensions to cultural and political superiority in the face of Europeans' certainty about the superiority of their own culture and power. The trade names of standard types of tea, which had once been part of its exotic attraction^ became objects of humor, as in figure 5.14 and in the visual-verbal puns portrayed in another illustration (fig. 5.13). New types of tea introduced in the nineteenth century more often than not were given European, not Asian, trade names, for example, "Earl Grey."

The Public

The cultural context in which the exotic appeal of tea was domesticated featured a claim by self-consciously respectable people (mainly of the middle class) to participation in national public discourse. Much of the preceding discussion has focused on die role of tea in the construction of middle-class private especially within the family, but as we have seen, tea also had public functions. For one thing, respectable people consumed tea not only at home but also in public places, where behavior was no less ritualized and meaningful and where it was more readily observed. Respectable European gentlemen and ladies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries took tea at teahouses and coffeehouses, In conspicuous preference to places where alcoholic beverages were regularly served. In the eighteenth century, respectably dressed people could also take tea at large, open-air establishments near urban areas, such as the one near London humorously portrayed in a cartoon from 1796 (fig, 5.15). At such locations, individuals and families could display their status and, under appropriate circumstances, engage in conversation with others on topics of public interest ranging from the serious to the trivial.

On occasion, tea was significant in public discussions that were very serious indeed, A sugar bowl (fig. 5.16) and the satirical illustration that appears in figure 5.7 relate to the campaign in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to persuade the British public to confront the moral problem of slavery in Britain's West Indian colonies. This movement, which ultimately succeeded in 1807 in abolishing the British slave trade and then, in 1833 and 1838, colonial slavery itself derived in many ways directly from the culture of respectability. Its success depended heavily on its ability to convince the respectable middle class that the moral imperative of ending slavery trumped all other political and economic considerations and that by leading the way to abolition^ Britain would be proving its moral superiority over other nations—ideas biased on and entirely consistent with respectability. By the early nineteenth century, supporting abolition had become one of the ways in which middle-class people asserted their perspective on politics as against that of many elite groups and against special interests that profited from slavery's continuance (Hochschild 2005).

Figure 5.7 is a cartoon from 1792 making fun both of one episode in the early history ol abolitionism and of King George III, thinly disguised in the cartoon as "John Bull, Abolitionists had organized a campaign to convince people to stop addling sugar to their tea as a way to put economic pressure on the West Indian sugar industry so as to get it to stop opposing abolition. The campaign was not very successful, but at one point, Queen Charlotte was reported to have agreed to take part in the boycott. She and the king are shown trying to convince their reluctant daughters that tea tastes good ever without sugar. (Almost everyone in Britain at the time took tea with large amounts of sugar.) An indirect object of the cartoons humor is George III himself, not because the king was particularly sympathetic to abolition (he was not), but because he had deliberately and successfully tried to portray himself and his family (not counting his sons) as exemplars of respectability. This was the first conscious effort to create a link between the royal family and a middle class that conceived of itself in terms of respectability. It would not be the last (Smith 2002.243-44)

The abolitionists later adopted tactics that required less selfsaailice on the part of the public. The sugar bowl in figure 5.16 was manufactured around 1825-1830, It bears the standard abolitionist logo of a kneeling slave in chains on one side. On the odder, it appeals to the public to use East Indian as exposed to West Indian sugar in its tea because the latter is produced by slaves and the former is not.

Tea carried a variety of meanings in the culture of respectability from the late seventeenth through the nineteenth centimes.Its ritual consumption was a sign of respectable gentility, fashion and good taste; a means of supporting health and demonstrating moral virtue; a central symbolic focus of family life; a way to domesticate and colonize the exotic; and a demand for foil inclusion in the public realm. Because of these meanings, tea played a significant role in the construction, definition, and practices of the middle class in the European and Atlantic worlds. Its relationship to the middle class was not the only that gave tea its world-historical importance, but it was a major one.