Tea companies come and tea companies go, though it’s worth noting that there are several such firms that measure their age in centuries rather than merely in years. If you’d been drinking tea in the nineteenth century, chances are you’d have been aware of Horniman’s Tea. Though they only got started in the early nineteenth century, according to some accounts by the end of that century they were the world’s largest tea trading company.
John Horniman started in business as a grocer and apparently took a leap into the tea business around 1826 on the Isle of Wight. He moved his already thriving company to London about a quarter of a century later to be more in the thick of things. Perhaps one of his greatest innovations and arguably a key to his success was in selling packaged tea at a time when most tea was sold loose and could be more easily adulterated by unscrupulous merchants.
By 1869 business was booming and the 66-year-old Horniman was ready to step down. He handed over the reins of the business to his son Frederick John and another relative. Given that Frederick John traveled extensively – often with his retired father – and spent a great deal of time and energy amassing a vast collection of curios and antiquities, it’s probably safe to assume that he was less directly involved in the daily operations of the business than his cousin.
Before long the younger Horniman’s collection had grown so large that he was given an ultimatum by his wife and the multitude of objects were shipped out to a new museum created for the purpose. About a decade later, in 1901, it was replaced by the Horniman Museum & Gardens, which survives and thrives to this very day. Interestingly, of the vast collection of items located there, the Museum’s online search engine shows only a few that are related to tea.
By this time John Horniman was gone, having died (leaving a considerable fortune) in 1893. After Frederick, the business was next passed on to Emslie John Horniman, Frederick’s son. It was he who was running the show when the firm was sold to J. Lyons & Co., in 1918, though various Hornimans stayed on board for quite some time to lend a hand with the operation of the company.
For most of us nowadays Horniman’s survives only through the assorted and sundry advertising and packaging memorabilia beloved by collectors. The exception would be in Spain, where parent company Sara Lee is still keeping the brand alive.
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