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Tea, as described by the Oxford English Dictionary:


1.  The leaves of the tea-plant, usually in a dried and prepared state for making the drink; first imported into Europe in the 17th century, and now extensively used in various parts of the world.


2. A meal or social entertainment at which tea is served; esp. an ordinary afternoon or evening meal, at which the usual beverage is tea (but sometimes cocoa, chocolate, coffee, or other substitute).


Tea played a key role in eighteenth-century etiquette, both as a drink and as a social act. The tea trade first boomed in the 1600s, and by the next century had settled comfortably into a regular component of British life.


Early 1700s

An eighteenth-century tea party


Tea often served as an excuse to display wealth; the apparatus used to store and serve tea were of varying levels of decoration and ornateness. For an example of a decorative rolled-paper tea caddy, see the wiki page on paper. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, teapots were frequently used to depict people, events, and scenes from stories.



                                Enamel-painted teapot, c.1745-55. It is small, reflecting the cost of tea at the time              Design for an intricate gold tea spoon

                                       http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O77946/teapot-frye-thomas/                   http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O124709/design-unknown/



A brief history of tea


There are several stories about how tea was first discovered as a drink. One claims that in in 2737 BC, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water, when some leaves from the tree blew into the water. Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, decided to try the infusion that his servant had accidentally created. Another Japanese legend states that in the sixth century the Indian prince Bodhidharma travelled to China after converting to Buddhism to spread the message. One of Bodhidharma′s beliefs was that he needed to stay awake for continual meditation and prayer. To achieve this state he would chew leaves from a tea shrub which acted as a stimulant to keep him awake. In one version of the story, Bodhidharma accidently falls asleep, so to stop this from happening again he cut off his own eyelids and threw them on the ground. Tea shrubs then grew from the eyelashes.


File:Shennong3.jpg                              BodhidharmaYoshitoshi1887.jpg

                   Emperor Shen Nung                                                                    Prince Bodhidharma

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Shennong3.jpg         http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BodhidharmaYoshitoshi1887.jpg


Alan and Iris MacFarlane in their book Green Gold: The Empire of Tea describe a list of the medical benefits of tea transcribed from a Chinese source in 1686 by T. Povey, a Member of Parliament:


  1. It purifyes the Bloud of that which is grosse and Heavy.
  2. It Vanquisheth heavy Dreames.
  3. It Easeth the brain of heavy Damps.
  4. Easeth and cureth giddinesse and Paines in the Heade.
  5. Prevents the Dropsie.
  6. Drieth Moist humours in the Head.
  7. Consumes Rawnesse.
  8. Opens Obstructions.
  9. Cleares the Sight.
  10. Clenseth and Purifieth adults humours and a hot Liver.
  11. Purifieth defects of the Bladder and Kiddneys.
  12. Vanquisheth Superfluous Sleep.
  13. Drives away dissines, makes one Nimble and Valient.
  14. Encourageth the heart and Drives away feare.
  15. Drives away all Paines of the Collick which proceed from Wind.
  16. Strengthens the Inward parts and Prevents Consumptions.
  17. Strengthens the Memory.
  18. Sharpens the Will and Quickens the Understanding.
  19. Purgeth Safely the Gaul.
  20. Strengthens the use of due benevolence. 

 (MacFarlane 66-7)


While some of these points are obviously flawed, it's obvious that tea's caffeine content is at the heart of several of these points (namely numbers 12, 13, 14 and 18).


The wife of Charles II, Princess Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705), was described as a "tea addict", and introduced it to court towards the end of the seventeenth century. This increased its popularity exponentially, as members of the lower class and rising middle class used tea as another way of emulating those wealthier than themselves.


File:Catherine of Braganza - Lely 1663-65.jpgPrincess Catherine of Braganza



Twinings is the oldest tea company in the UK, established in 1706:


"One man who was sure that it would be big was a certain Thomas Twining. Having had enough of drinking ale in the morning, he started selling tea from his coffee house on London's Strand, promising only to sell the finest qualities and varieties. His pledge soon won him (and his tea) lots of fans - including Jane Austen and Charles II. By the 1750s, tea was the most popular drink among the working classes."


In 1717 Thomas Twining converted Tom's Coffee House into The Golden Lyon, London's first teashop. Tea had been sold there since 1706, but this was the first established devoted to selling only tea. It was frequented by members of both sexes, not just men, as was the norm for coffee houses. It was the rise of these teashops that meant the increased popularity of tea as a drink. Families now had places to visit in public (male-frequented clubs, coffee houses and pubs not being suitable).


Oil painting - A Family of Three at Tea; A Family at Tea; A Family of Three at Tea"A Family of Three at Tea", Richard Collins, c. 1727




With the increased popularity of tea came an increased demand for cheaper versions. These versions were often harmful to the buyer's health, as John Griffiths outlines in his book Tea: A History of the Drink that Changed the World:


"It became commonplace among some British tea traders to bulk out expensive, genuine tea leaves with native leaves, twigs and other hedgerow rubbish that cost next to nothing to collect. The whole was then sold as if it were unadulterated tea. Some of the leaves used were relatively harmless (favourites were hawthorn and ash); others, such as belladonna, ivy and Robin-run-the-hedge - which had precisely the effect on the bowels that its name suggests - were not...These miscegenated teas were known as"smouch": ...it is likely to have come from the Afrikaans-Dutch word for a pedlar or a cheat."


"So damaging to the honest tea merchant had the practice of smouching become that in 1776 a law was hastily passed threatening a fine of £5 a pound, or imprisonment, for anyone caught trying "to dye or fabricate any sloe leaves, liquorice leaves, or leaves of tea that has been used".

(Griffiths 292-3)


This menu from a tea and coffee shop in Piccadilly demonstrates the kind of prices clients were paying for their tea (note the stress the owner places on the fact that his products are not adulterated):



The first page from a pamphlet warning against tea smuggling and adulteration


Tea was frequently stolen; tea caddies mostly had locks, as the contents was more expensive than the container. Between 1700 and 1799 the Criminal Trials and Confessions of the Old Bailey records 3,039 thefts involving tea and tea-related paraphernalia such as teapots, caddies and spoons. The case below details the theft of 60 lb (just over 27 kg) of tea from a shop. The thief was executed.


"Edward Williams , of London, was indicted for, breaking the House of John Cousens , in the Night-time, and stealing 60 Pound of Tea, value 60 l. the 13th of June last. The Prosecutor deposed, that his House was broken, and his Tea stolen, a Door that went out of the Cellar into the Shop was broken, that the Till where his Money used to be was broken; but that not answering Expectation, there being no Money in it, the Warehouse-Door was forced open, and his Tea stollen, and carried out at the Shop-Door, the Door being left open, of which he was acquitted by the Wch, and that the next Morning hearing of a Parcel of Tea that had been old, upon Enquiry found it to be his; and suspecting the Prisoner, he being apprehended, confess'd the Fact, that he got into the Cellar in the Day-time. Conceal'd himself till late at Night, then broke out of the Cellar into the shop, and thence into the Warehouse. The Prisoner having little to say in his Defence, the Jury found him Guilty of the Indictment.( Death )"


Tea began to replace coffee as the beverage over which discussions were held, even metaphorically: in 1724 a twice-weekly periodical about politics and government, called The Tea Table, began circulation.


Untitled item Page 1

The first edition of The Tea Table



The Boston Tea Party


The only consumer items more heavily taxed than tea in the UK are cigarettes and alcohol. The events of the Boston Tea Party came about as a protest against rising taxes on tea. It is estimated that between 1730 and 1739 two-thirds of British tea was smuggled due to the skyrocketing taxes. 


"The tax on tea was steadily raised...to finance first the Seven Years War (1756-63) and then, from 1773, resistance to America's struggle for independence. (The precedent had been well set in 784 when the Tang Emperor taxed tea in order to raise an army to suppress rebellion.)"

(Griffiths 284)










































This pamphlet outlines the outrage felt by rising taxes on tea, and defends the actions of the people involved in the Boston Tea Party



Tea in Fanny Hill


Tea features heavily in John Cleland's Fanny Hill. The act of taking tea is always used as either a front for the introduction of clients, or as part of the preparation for meeting and serving clients. It is also used as an opportunity to settle business in a genteel environment.



A scene where Fanny is introduced to a client over tea


William Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress depicts a scene where a country girl drawn into prostitution upon her arrival in London (much like Fanny) attempts to cause a distraction by knocking over a tea table. It's possible to imagine situations of this kind happening a lot.





Tea-leaf reading


Tasseography (also known as tassology or tasseomancy), the art of reading tea leaves as a form of divination, first seems to appear in medieval times in the UK. The term also refers to reading coffee grounds or wine sediments.


"The best kind of tea to use if tea-cup reading is to be followed is undoubtedly China tea, the original tea imported into this country and still the best for all purposes. Indian tea and the cheaper mixtures contain so much dust and so many fragments of twigs and stems as often to be quite useless for the purposes of divination, as they will not combine to form pictures, or symbols clearly to be discerned.


The best shape of cup to employ is one with a wide opening at the top and a bottom not too small. Cups with almost perpendicular sides are very difficult to read, as the symbols cannot be seen properly, and the same may be said of small cups. A plain-surfaced breakfast-cup is perhaps the best to use; and the interior should be white and have no pattern printed upon it, as this confuses the clearness of the picture presented by the leaves, as does any fluting or eccentricity of shape.


The ritual to be observed is very simple. The tea-drinker should drink the contents of his or her cup so as to leave only about half a teaspoonful of the beverage remaining. He should next take the cup by the handle in his left hand, rim upwards, and turn it three times from left to right in one fairly rapid swinging movement. He should then very slowly and carefully invert it over the saucer and leave it there for a minute, so as to permit of all moisture draining away."




A guide to tasseography symbols



And just for fun...Doris Day singing from the musical Tea for Two.



Bibliography (18th century resources)


Boot, T. (Thomas). Tea, coffee and chocolate, At T. Boot's Warehouse, No. 212, in Piccadilly, the Corner of Eagle-Street; Where the Nobility, Gentry, and others, may be supplied with some fine fresh Teas, Coffee and Chocolate, on the most reasonable Terms, for Ready Money only. [London ],  [1790?]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Warwick Library. 10 Mar. 2014 


Advice to the unwary: Or, an abstract, of certain penal laws now in force against smuggling in general, and the adulteration of tea; with some remarks, Very necessary to be read by all Persons; that they may not run themselves into Difficulties, or incur Penalties therefrom.



Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 10 March 2014), July 1718, trial of Edward Williams (t17180709-38).



The Tea Table:


Cartwright, John. American independence the interest and glory of Great Britain; or, arguments to prove, that not only in taxation, but in trade, manufactures, and government, the colonies are entitled to an entire independency on the British legislature; and that it can only be by a formal Declaration of these Rights, and forming thereupon a friendly League with them, that the true and lasting Welfare of both Countries can be promoted. In a Series of Letters to the Legislature. To which are added copious Notes; containing Reflections on the Boston and Quebec Acts; and a full Justification of the People of Boston, for destroying the British-Taxed Tea; submitted to the Judgment, not of those who have none but borrowed Party-Opinions, but of the Candid and Honest. London,  M.DCC.LXXIV. [1774]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Warwick Library. 10 Mar. 2014 


Cleland, John. Memoirs of a woman of pleasure. ... Vol. Volume 1. London,  M.DCC.XLIX. [1749]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Warwick Library. 10 Mar. 2014 


Other resources


Oxford English Dictionary definition of tea:


MacFarlane, Alan & Iris. Green Gold: The Empire of Tea. London: Ebury Press, 2004. Print.


History of Twinings:



Griffiths, John Charles. Tea: A History of the Drink That Changed the World. London: Andre Deutsch, 2011. Print. 


Information on tea-leaf reading:



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