A Social History of Tea

A Social History of Tea

A Social History of Tea: Tea’s Influence on British and American Culture
by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson (Benjamin Press, 2014)

Reviewed by James Norwood Pratt • Photography courtesy of Benjamin Press

History, as we usually think of it, seems like a river of crimes, follies, and disasters flowing through time. Wars and famines begin and end, governments rise and fall, famous people come and go. Yet all this commotion seldom touches daily life directly—comparatively few are swept away in the river. Most of us go about our lives on its banks, having babies, earning a living, gossiping over tea, and caring for one another. History is also this story of day-to-day private life alongside the river of public events, but this is not so easy to document and describe and is usually ignored. This is the secret side—the social history—of tea, and it has now been revealed in A Social History of Tea: Tea’s Influence on British and American Culture. I hope to be only the first of many to bow with thanks and praise to authors Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson.

Here is history as it should be written. In a spellbinding way, the story skips merrily along while seeming to skip nothing; it moves quickly, but never seems to hurry. We linger in the boudoir of Catherine of Braganza while the tea steeps “no longer than whilst you can say the Miserere Psalm very leisurely.” Any lover of quaint and curious lore will spend happy hours taking instruction from these authors. I never suspected old Thomas Twining’s cunning in locating London’s first tea shop no great distance from the city’s finest townhouses, but history is nothing if not social. Like the business, the fashion has proved permanent. “The method of making tea is so well known as to require no directions,” wrote an English author just 50 years after Twining’s launch. Nor had I ever heard of the Green Dragon Coffee House, which figured in all the political and social events in Bostonfrom the time it was founded in 1697. It was the principal exchange for tea, smuggled mainly, and was, according to Daniel Webster, “headquarters of the Revolution.” This impressive social institution lasted 135 years, until 1832. I daresay the saga of the subjugation of the English-speaking world by the leaf of this Asian shrub has never been better told, and I say so as one who has studied the matter.

This achievement is all the more remarkable, considering it is an Anglo-American collaboration. Jane is the (very) English author of the well-known The Social History of Tea in Britain published there by the National Trust. Bruce, her American publisher at Benjamin Press, has added American social history to Jane’s classic account, blending not only their voices but their points of view. To illustrate: Bruce is surely America’s leading historian of the Boston Tea Party, serving as tea authority for the Boston Tea Party and Ships Museum, amongst much else, but Jane’s collaboration requires fairness to British policy makers: “By 1773, the East India Company faced a surplus of 17 million pounds of tea… more than all England could drink in a year… debts were mounting and the Bank of England refused them any loans. …If the East India Company collapsed, the banks and the British treasury would follow.” Too big to fail has now become a familiar concept.

It isn’t concepts, however, but delicious morsels of forgotten fact that make their work scrumptious, and the clinking of cups and saucers tunes the mind to happy thoughts throughout. Yet one comes away realizing afresh how the story of tea before 1800 is the story of how international commerce in luxury goods, tea most importantly, totally transformed everything in polite society—from social behavior to furniture styles—in England and America. As tea became a more and more affordable pleasure, a necessity almost, after 1800, its influence in both countries continued to grow, and here the stories cascade. Everybody has heard of Thomas Lipton. But do we ever consider George Gilman, who founded the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (A&P) in 1859? George’s teas were just as poplar as Thomas’s and just as important in creating modern advertising and merchandizing. Or consider how from the very first afternoon tea parties, tea played a decisive role in women’s emancipation. The newly invented and daring tea gown allowed a lady to receive guests and entertain without being tightly laced in a corset. It was precisely such “loose women” and their tea that were responsible for the Temperance and Suffragette movements, not to mention the advent and spread of the tearoom (unheard of before the 1880s).

With the 20th century, everything grew bigger, faster, and scarier. Phenomena like the automobile, the telephone, Prohibition, and back-to-back world wars changed everything. The glamour of tea gowns, tea dances, tea-leaf reading, and fancy hotel teas had worn off by the half-century, and in both the UK and the US, tea quality had sunk beneath the economics of the tea bag. Jane and Bruce have played major roles in the successful rescue effort that we now term our Tea Renaissance—but I find too much to praise and will stop here, adding only that you’re sure to enjoy their secret history.


Having served the cause of tea around the world for three decades, James Norwood Pratt is a highly regarded teacher and speaker and a recognized authority on tea and tea lore. His eponymous Tea Dictionary was published in 2010. For more information, visit jamesnorwoodpratt.com. He and his wife, Valerie, live in San Francisco.

From TeaTime January/February 2014

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