The image of befeathered patriots dumping tons of tea into Boston Harbor conjures strong feelings even today. Even more so in the eighteenth century. You may have read my previous article about the feelings of those early Americans towards our favorite beverage. Today, we drink tea out of choice, among a plethora of other beverages. Yet denizens of the eighteenth century, both in the Americas and in England, had little other choice.
Instead of images of genteel ladies sipping tea with delicately raised fingers, instead picture drunken magistrates, tipsy doctors, and a generally intoxicated population. For most of the eighteenth century, public drunkenness was not seen as anything out of the ordinary. In fact, men bragged about the volume of alcohol they could consume in a single sitting, much like overgrown college students. On the other hand, there were not many other safe options on the beverage menu.
Water was largely polluted, completely unsanitary to drink over ice. The idea of drinking fruit juice would have been seen as a waste for most people, as fruit was prohibitively expensive. Apples, less expensive, were pressed into cider. Yet, most often, this cider then fermented into hard cider. Coffee, likewise, was a luxury for the rich. While the poor drank a horse chestnut substitute, it seems that this concoction was only for the most desperate because of its vile flavor.
That left tea, steeped in water made more safe through boiling. It was affordable by most, especially if the lower classes bought used leaves from the backdoors of the rich. People drank black and green tea, especially gunpowder, congou, and hysson. They took their tea without milk.
As you can see, this lovely beverage provided one of the very few non-alcoholic alternatives in the eighteenth century, and ladies began to promote it as an alternative to booze after dinner, as well as a break in the late afternoon. With consumption of tea constantly on the rise, it was all the more shocking when the Sons of Liberty tossed it into the waves.
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