1x14 | Tea Time

The word "tea" appears in Queen Victoria’s journals 7,587 times. By the end of her reign, tea had become an integral part of British national identity, but the beverage’s origins aren’t actually British at all. So how did tea’s reputation change so drastically?

My name is Lenore, and I’m the Victorienne. Today’s topic was suggested by Julie Evans.

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Tea has been grown in China for thousands of years and it was brought to England in the 17th century, first appearing in a coffee house, which advertised the tea’s health benefits. In 1662 it was introduced to the royal court by Catherine of Braganza when she arrived from Portugal to marry King Charles II. This made the beverage popular with the aristocracy, and for a long time it was prohibitively expensive, meaning only the aristocracy could consume it. The drink grew more popular in the 18th century when people began adding in milk and sugar to improve the taste - something the Chinese didn’t do. At the time, sugar was still an expensive luxury, and the upper classes consumed heaps of it until health experts finally realized it wasn’t doing their health any favors. So, having sugar in moderation was encouraged, and having a bit of it in tea became fashionable.

Over time, both tea and sugar became less expensive, and by the mid-18th century, even the lower classes were consuming tea regularly. It had been considered a luxury, but it quickly became a necessity and by 1800 it was the most popular drink in Britain. It was well-suited to their typically cold, wet climate, and it was easy to prepare at home. On top of this, the price of tea became more stable than the price of coffee once the British East India Company decided to focus on tea as its main import.

Some historians have argued that tea played a major role in the industrial revolution because its caffeine, along with calories added by milk and sugar, gave workers the energy boost needed to work longer hours. Industrial bosses certainly preferred their workers drink tea, rather than beer, because while beer also provided calories, it made workers sluggish and less productive, and drunkenness could lead to factory accidents.

All that tea was good for the workers, too, because it might be the only warmth they had all day, consumed with what little stale bread and cheese they could afford. We also know now that tea was healthy for them because boiling water to use in tea helped kill off the waterborne diseases that plagued the working classes, such as cholera, dysentery, and typhoid.

That benefit of avoiding waterborne illness could also be seen in alcohol, but with the Temperance Movement beginning in the 1830s, the lower classes were strongly encouraged to choose tea over liquor. Tea was promoted as the moral option for working class people who wanted the upper classes to view them as respectable and deserving of voting rights. Supporters of temperance would host "temperance tea parties" to promote the ideals of sober life. Women in particular favored temperance and tea over alcohol, and the option of coffee was less available to them.

Coffee was seen as being more masculine, and the coffee houses where men often gathered weren’t open to women. Tea, on the other hand, was marketed as a drink for men or women, and hosting an afternoon tea gathering was empowering for Victorian women. It was an excuse for them to socialize without men present, and it was one of the only social occasions in which women—not men—were in charge. Tea was so strongly associated with women and domestic life that even aristocratic women would pour tea instead of having a servant do it. As the historians Alan and Iris Macfarlane wrote, "She who wields the teapot has a powerful weapon in her hand, and even the most bullying of men will defer to her during that limited period."

Of course, as with just about anything women do, socializing over tea was criticized and men teased them for it. Tea parties became associated with female gossip and were slangily referred to as "tabby parties". The beverage was sometimes referred to as "scandal broth" or "scandal potion", and some writers used tea in their literature to imply that a woman was either vapid or of loose character. The political writer and pamphleteer William Cobbett even said "The gossip of the tea-table is no bad preparatory school for the brothel" and "The girl that has been brought up, merely to boil the tea kettle, and to assist in the gossip inseparable from the practice, is a mere consumer of food, a pest to her employer, and a curse to her husband, if any man be so unfortunate as to affix his affections upon her." Harsh words. This opinion that having tea led a woman to immorality was especially strong in Ireland, where moral reformers were strongly against tea drinking. They claimed tea was linked to revolutionary feminism and that it caused women to loaf about when they should have been working hard. The Irish upper classes criticized the way peasant women wasted their money on tea and wasted their time sitting around drinking that tea. A woman with a tea cup in her hand was not busy at work, and she might even be talking politics, which was very dangerous. Those Irish moral reformers were unsuccessful in getting women to drop their tea-drinking habit, and today the Republic of Ireland is second only to the Republic of Turkey in tea consumption.

One thing those moral reformers were correct about was tea’s link to feminism. Tea shops and tea rooms across the United Kingdom played a large role in the women’s suffrage movement. While the Twinings brand has claimed they opened the first tea shop in the 18th century, the first tea shop as we know them today was opened in 1864 by a female manager of London’s Aerated Bread Company. Most tea shops and tea rooms catered more to women than to men, because the shops were restaurants which respectable women could patronize without male chaperones. Many tea rooms were female-owned and operated and had a more comfortable, homelike environment than other restaurants. It was common for women to open tea rooms in their own homes or gardens as a way to make extra money while still performing many of the same tasks they’d been performing for years - that is, hosting people, and making and serving food. For many women it was their first entry into the workforce. Because of this and the fact that tea rooms were gathering places for independently-minded women, they frequently served as the locations of women’s campaign meetings.

While some women talked politics over tea, others tried to use the drink to predict their futures. You may be familiar with the practice of tasseomancy - or reading tea leaves - as a form of divination, as seen in Harry Potter. It gained popularity among the upper classes in the Victorian era. For a long time, such things were practiced only by the lower classes, who were generally more superstitious, and by the Romani people. Reading tea leaves was a middle ground between spiritualism - also popular with the Victorians - and new ideas of human psychology, such as those put forward by Josef Breuer and his protégé Sigmund Freud. At first, reading tea leaves was done by Romani people in tea rooms, coffee houses, and parlors, but over time the practice was brought into the home. Victorian ladies hosted tea parties where they would read each others’ leaves, sometimes using special pottery printed with imagery such as the zodiac.

While the tradition of reading tea leaves isn’t practiced often today, one tradition has remained popular into the 21st century: afternoon tea. The custom is often incorrectly said to have been created in 1840 by Anna Maria Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, and lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. At the time, it was fashionable to eat dinner late in the day, often at 8 or 9pm, so there was a large gap between the midday meal and the evening meal. According to an oft-repeated story, the Duchess of Bedford described a having a sinking feeling around 4pm every day, so she requested that tea, bread, butter, and cake be brought to her room. This became a habit and she began inviting friends to join her. Once the new custom caught on with Queen Victoria, it became commonplace. In reality, it’s unlikely the Duchess of Bedford was the only woman in England to have a snack around that time of day, and the tradition probably started before 1840. Afternoon tea is even hinted at in an unfinished novel by Jane Austen from back in 1804.

In the later part of the century, large hotels caught on to the new tradition of afternoon tea and began to offer the service. What’s served with tea today is pretty similar to what was served then: small cakes, pastries, sandwiches, and scones. Queen Victoria was known to enjoy sponge cake with her tea, and when baking powder was invented in 1843 and sponges could rise higher, the new Victoria Sponge was named for her.

We Americans are known to confuse afternoon tea with high tea - which is a different thing entirely. Afternoon tea is sometimes called "low tea" in reference to the low tables it was served on next to low lounge chairs. High tea sounds like it would be fancier than low tea, but in fact high tea was more for the lower classes. High tea was served on high tables or counters and diners sometimes sat on high stools or just ate standing up. The food served is much heartier than at a genteel afternoon tea. It includes heavy things like meat pies, potatoes, cheese, eggs, or bread. For this reason high tea was also sometimes called "meat tea". High tea was taken more often by the working classes because it was a larger meal they had at the end of a working day. Before the industrial revolution, most workers could go back home for a midday meal, but in the large, industrial cities of the Victorian era, workers couldn’t do that. Sometimes they didn’t get lunch breaks at all, so at the end of a long day they needed a filling meal.

High tea, or meat tea, wasn’t exclusively for the working classes. Some wealthier people who had servants would opt to have high tea on Sundays. It took less time to prepare than their usual combo of afternoon tea and evening meal, so this meant their servants had time to attend church.

Unfortunately for the working classes, the tea they drank was often low quality or adulterated. Sometimes this just meant vendors bought used tea leaves from housemaids that they’d then dry out to sell again. But sometimes it meant vendors sold regular plant leaves that had been dyed with logwood or even red lead. To create the color of green tea, they’d dye the leaves with verdigris, which could actually cause gastrointestinal problems.

One reason food adulteration was such a big problem in Victorian Britain was due to how food was packaged before being sold. Typically, large amounts of a product were sent to a retailer, who would then weigh out a portion of the product as part of each individual transaction. A customer had no way of knowing if the scale being used was accurate or if a shop owner had tampered with the product to stretch out their supply. Pre-packaged, mass-produced products gained popularity in the Victorian era partly because they helped shoppers know they were actually getting what they paid for. One man who saw the potential in pre-packaged tea was Thomas Lipton, the founder of the Lipton Tea brand that’s still going strong today. In 1871 he opened a grocery shop in Glasgow, Scotland and then went looking for new items to sell. He decided he would sell tea, and that he would lower the prices by cutting out the middle man - the tea brokers. This would be done by growing tea on his own farms in Sri Lanka, and then selling it pre-packaged in his shops. This way he had total control over the product and his customers knew they were getting tea of a consistent quality. An added benefit was the space his packages provided for advertising. 

Back in the 1860s, a fungus had ruined the formerly lucrative coffee plants in Sri Lanka. Some planters decided to switch to cultivating tea, while others sold off their land for extremely low prices. Lipton was one of the people who took advantage of that deal, buying up 3,000 acres of land in Sri Lanka. Lipton Tea became known for their slogan "direct from tea garden to tea pot" . The brand gained worldwide success, but Lipton’s land in Sri Lanka wasn’t enough to meet demand, meaning some of the tea was actually from tea brokers and Lipton quietly stopped using that slogan. In fact, for the "direct from tea garden to tea pot" slogan to be true, Thomas Lipton would’ve had to own half of Sri Lanka.

During that time, Sri Lanka, like its neighbor India, was a British colony, and was called Ceylon, which is why tea grown there is still sometimes called Ceylon tea. The first non-commercial tea plant in Sri Lanka was planted in 1824 in the Royal Botanical Gardens. That same year, an indigenous tea plant was found in Assam, India, and the British colonists realized they could grow tea there and in Darjeeling, India. This was a fortunate find for the British, who had been dependent on China for their tea, which was costing them dearly. The British were sending heaps of money to the Chinese in exchange for their tea because they just didn’t have anything to trade that China actually wanted. It was an uneven and expensive trade deal until the British East India Company, which had a monopoly on the tea trade, realized the Chinese would trade tea for opium. Unfortunately, this led to an addiction crisis in China, so they outlawed the opium trade. In response, the British began selling their opium to smaller traders who smuggled it into China, so in 1839, Chinese officials seized and destroyed over 20,000 chests of that opium. Thus began the Opium Wars. Three years later, the port of Hong Kong was ceded to the British, who by then were conspiring to produce their own teas in India anyway.

The East India Company sent a botanist by the name of Robert Fortune to China in disguise as a wealthy Chinese merchant. He sampled teas and observed the process of tea cultivation. At the end of his trip, he brought back thousands of tea seedlings to be used in India, along with some Chinese planters to teach Indian planters their techniques. India went on to surpass China as the world’s largest tea producer and the British established other tea plantations in Sri Lanka.

The British colonists argued that by taking Indian land and using it to cultivate tea, they were raising the peasants’ standard of living and doing those poor people a favor. Robert Fortune even wrote, condescendingly, that the people of India were "so poor that they are unable to sufficiently feed, clothe, or shelter themselves without British intervention". Tea was promoted as a patriotic British drink because it was grown in the British Empire, while coffee and chocolate were from other imperial powers. Many British people still preferred the Chinese tea, but the British government ended the import duty on India tea, lowering its price, and continued to promote Indian tea as quintessentially British and patriotic. They succeeded, and by the late 1880s, the British people were drinking more tea from India than from China.

Tea’s link to imperialism doesn’t end with the Indian subcontinent. As I mentioned earlier, adding sugar to tea was a common British practice, but at the beginning of the 19th century this became a highly political act. Sugar was harvested by enslaved people in the Americas on sugar plantations, so in more liberal British circles, sugar came to represent the evils of slavery and was boycotted. After the British abolished slavery at home and in those colonies, there was still the problem of cheaper sugar produced by the enslaved people of other empires. British grocers began selling sugar from other regions and some served that sugar in bowls printed with the phrase "East India sugar not made by slaves".

I hope this episode has given you a few things to reflect on the next time you enjoy your Earl Grey. Speaking of Earl Grey, I’ll be covering its origins in the next Patreon bonus episode, along with Victorian tea etiquette, including the debate on whether to add milk or tea to the cup first.

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Thanks for listening.

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