The Evils of Tea

Lady Londonderry tea
Lady Londonderry tea

So, it’s unanimous. Tea is a good thing, it’s good for you, and we can all gather in a circle, drink it until our eyeballs float, hold hands and sing its praises. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but nowadays most people who have an opinion will probably agree that you can do worse things for yourself than have a cup of tea.

But it wasn’t always this way. While we’ve seen a fair number of studies lately that sing the praises of tea’s many health benefits, when it was first introduced to Europe, it was a different ballgame. By most accounts tea was introduced there in the early seventeenth century and, given that it was such a novel and unfamiliar substance, some unusual notions sprang up.

As far back as 1722, the author of An Essay on the Nature, Use, and Abuse, of Tea, in a Letter to a Lady; With an Account of Its Mechanical Operation, was railing against tea. He apparently considered it his “indispensable duty to acquaint the world with the many disorders which may possibly arise from its too frequent use.” Among the deleterious effects noted, the tendency of tea to “attenuate the blood,” “depauper the blood,” and “bring on any degree whatsoever of a plethora necessary to the production of any disease, which may arise from a plethoric state of body.” Ouch.

Though not the prevailing opinion in this era, it was also not an uncommon one, and a century later people were still on their soapbox, ranting about tea. In The Evils Of Tea (And The Virtues Of Beer), in 1822, William Cobbett wrote that tea “contains nothing nutritious; that it, besides being good for nothing, has badness in it, because it is well known to produce want of sleep in many cases, and in all cases, to shake and weaken the nerves.”

At the end of that same century, tea was still taking some lumps, including an 1897 article – The Evils of Tea-Drinking – from the Journal of the American Medical Assocation, no less. In it, the author notes, “In these days of Tea-worship it is well to call attention occasionally to the deleterious effects of the excessive use of this beverage. In their ardent advocacy of the ‘cup that cheers but not inebriates,’ the apostles of temperance are too prone to forget that there are other intemperances than alcoholic ones, and of these none is more vicious than the pet vice of refined and polite society, tea-debauchery.”

This is hardly the place to catalog the many instances of tea trashing, but you can check out a few more here and here, as well as an 1892 advertisement which concludes that “most people” believe tea drinking is harmful. For a little bit of balance, refer to this 1908 letter In Praise of Tea.

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