One of the great men of English letters, Samuel Johnson lived in the eighteenth century and is arguably best known as the subject of one of the most famous biographies of them all — James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Much more importantly, at least for purposes of this article and tea culture in general, Johnson was something of a cheerleader for tea, a drink that was still a relative novelty in the England of his day.
Johnson minced no words when it came to describing his love for the fruits of the Camellia sinensis plant, describing himself as “a hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has, for twenty years, diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and, with tea, welcomes the morning.” Nicely said, Mr. Johnson.
The document from which that somewhat famous quote is taken is a review Johnson wrote for The Literary Magazine in 1757. The work under consideration was A Journal of Eight Days Journey from Portsmouth to Kingston upon Thames, With Miscellaneous Thoughts, Moral and Religious, in a Series of Letters. It was a travelogue, of sorts, that had been published the previous year by one Jonas Hanway.
Also contained in this tome was what Hanway called “an essay on tea.” It should be noted that said author was not exactly a keen admirer of tea, which was not exactly an unusual position to take in this particular day and age. Johnson, the “hardened and shameless tea-drinker,” not surprisingly, took exception to Hanway’s assertion that “the consumption of tea is injurious to the interest of our country.”
All in all, the esteemed Mr. Johnson spent more than four thousand words examining and attempting to refute Hanway’s claims for the “injurious” nature of tea, while pretty much ignoring the rest of the book. Which makes for some mighty entertaining reading. If you’d like to check it out for yourself, look here. For more on Johnson, take a look at an online exhibition called A Monument More Durable Than Brass: The Donald & Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson.
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