The Tea Craze In The West

The Tea Craze In The West

Beatrice Hohenegger

FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, tea was regarded as one of the seven daily necessities ip China - dnmk at every occasion, celebrated in poetry and art,and offered as imperial tribute. In Japan it attained the status of sacred beverage and fostered the development of a national culture surrounding test. All this transpired before Europeans had the faintest "liquid jade," as tea was termed in China. They were also unacquainted with coffee and chocolate until maritime traders brought all three beverages to European tables at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Over time the impact of these new commodities proved enormous, not in the least because they all contain methylxanthine, also known as caffeine. Prior to the introduction of these exotic drinks, breakfast must have been a particularly dreary affair, especially considering that with water being unsafe, the morning beverage of choice in England was beer.

Initially, all three new beverages were rare and costly (figs. m,2,111,3), which limited their consumption to the wealthy few who could afford to keep up with current fashion. Tea was sold at apothecaries and was often purchased because of its health benefits—much touted in one of the most famous English broadsides and later frequently discussed in the first European treatises on tea, which appeared in the second half of the seventeenth century (see Smith, this volume). Before its arrival in England, tea had become a trendy novelty among the Dutch, and they were the first to officially import it to Europe, a half century before the English East India Company (EIC) realized the trade potential, Although the Company was chartered in it, was not until 1669 that it began to import tea directly to England instead of buying it from the Dutch, and even then the amount of the first order was a paltry 143 pounds (Ukers 1:29). By that time tea drinking had already spread beyond the English nobility and to the general population. If the EIC was slow to pick up on the tea phenomenon, however, the English government was not. It had begun taxing tea in 1660.

The primary locus of urban tea consumption in England was a new type of public establishment, the coffeehouse, and access to it was limited to men. The first coffeehouse opened in Oxford in 1650. Within a few years, eighty of them had opened in London, and by the end of the century the number had reached five hundred. At these establishments one could order coffee, tea, chocolate, or a pipe; exchange the latest news and gossip, talk shop, or start a business; or get an education of sorts by being exposed to all manner of discussions, explanations, and diatribes (coffeehouses were referred to as "penny universities" for this very reason). It was here, where men congregated - to a great extent regardless of class, status, or rank—that tea grew to become the preferred beverage of Englishmen.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, tea drinking expanded even further, moving beyond the confines of male-only establishments and toward die female domestic sphere, This move was facilitated by the opening of a new category of shop, the tea shop. The first one, the Golden Lyon, was opened by Thomas Twining in 1706, There it was possible to purchase the dry leaf in order to brew tea on gongfu tea table at home. This development, in turn, spurred the production of special equipment designed for the purpose, including kettles and hot water urns (figs. 111.4,111,5). evolution of tea drinking from exotic novelty to domestic ritual is masterfully explored by Woodruff Smith in his essay in this volume, "Tea and the Middle Class." Although distinct from these middle-class developments, paintings known as "conversation pieces" are also instructive in examining tea and domesticity. Angus Trumble discusses this genre and the role of tea in the context of eighteenth-century art and social discourse in his essay "Tea and the Conversation Piece."

By the second half of the eighteenth century, tea drinking was a ubiquitous ingredient of daily life in English society. To support the habit, East Indiamen (fig. 111.6) - the large, slow merchant ships of the EIC - sailed the seas and brought back ever-increasing quantities of tea. It took more than a year for the roundtrip from London to Canton, and the tea, which was mostly green at the time and had a shorter shelf life than blacky often arrived in less than ideal condition. The East Indiamen would be replaced less than a century later by sleek clipper ships, which could make the voyage in half the time (fig, 111,1). Yet, while tea imports were on the rise, chinaware, which at first was brought to Europe in massive amounts - because it sold well on arrival and also functioned as excellent ballast en route - was on the decrease. When tea was still a novelty, none of the necessary implements (tea bowk, saucers, teapots) existed in Europe, and they had to be imported mostly from China by the English and, to a lesser extent, from Japan by the Dutch. After Ehrenfried Walther von Tschimhaus discovered the Chinese secret of porcelain making in 1708, however, Meissen became the first European porcelain manufactory. Over subsequent decades, other factories in Germany, as well as France, England, and Italy, began producing original tea ware, at first imitating Chinese shapes (figs. 111.7—111.9) and later coming into their own with a great variety of styles and designs, of which the traveling tea set in figure 111.10 is only one of countless exquisite examples (figs, 111.11-111.22). As a result of these developments, once-prized tea sets from China lay in overstock in East India Company warehouses. They were sold as "new" arrivals for a number of years until the Company discontinued bulk imports altogether in 1791.

By this time something else was overstocked in the Company warehouses as well: tea itself. This is often explained, at least in part, as the result of an increasing demand for tea - which pushed eic tea imports to extravagant heights - and the competition from the burgeoning tea-smuggling industry, which made sales of expensive, legal, and heavily taxed Company tea more difficult. According to some estimates, the amount of tea smuggled into Britain was at times twice the amount of legal tea imported by the eic (Bowen 1998,167). Historian Huw Bowen has, however, added another important factor to the equation. According to Bowen, the increase in volume of tea imports during the 1760s and 1770s had a very specific cause: when the East India Company became a revenue collector in Bengal (as well as Bihar and Orissa) in 1765, it was confronted with the quandary of how to transfer the revenue surplus from India to England. Not only was the direct transfer of bullion risky, but reducing the amount of coinage in circulation had the potential to ruin Bengal's economy. Considering that tea was in high demand, Company officials decided to redirect the surplus to the buying of greater amounts of tea in China, with the intention of using the purchases as a transfer of revenue to England in the material form of tea shipments. As such, the tea trade became "a 'national concern' because it offered one of the few channels which revenue income could flow to Britain" (Bowen 1998,163).

This course of action ultimately had disastrous consequences as the market was flooded. By 1772 the tea surplus had reached 17.5 million pounds, and it would soon become a powerful catalyst in the birth of the American nation. As Bowen notes "it can be argued that, far from underwriting British imperialism during the 1760s and 1770s, the tea trade did exactly the opposite and began iastead to undermine it" (1998,160). Every American schoolchild what happened to the 342 Company teg chests at Boston Harbor, Of less-common knowledge, however, is the widespread tea-related activism that occurred in colonies other than Massachusetts, a topic insightfully addressed in Jane Merritt's essay in this volume "Beyond Boston: Prerevolutionary Activism and the Other American Tea Parties." Tea is inextricably linked to American independence, yet, it may be surprising for some readers to discover that before the Revolution gave tea a bad name, eighteenth-century colonists were even more avid tea drinkers than their English brethren and that, indeed, thanks to early Dutch colonization of New Amsterdam, one could say that Americans knew and appreciated tea even before the English. Barbara Carson's essay in this section of the book takes us on a journey through the eighteenth-century colonial world, acquainting us with early colonial tea habits. It also hints at postrevolutionary habits, correcting the common misperception that Americans became coffee drinkers as a result of the Revolution.