Tea and Coffee Circa 1839

Outmoded tea hysteria?
Outmoded tea hysteria?

Having written about tea for a while, I’ve discovered that one of my favorite aspects of the process is seeing how perspectives have changed (and sometimes stayed the same) over the years. One of the volumes I examined recently is William Andrus Alcott’s Tea and Coffee, which first appeared in 1839 and which is available today in various free electronic editions.

An educator and physician, among other things, Alcott the underachiever also found time to write more than one hundred books, many on health-related topics. He was also a founding member of the American Vegetarian Society. In Tea and Coffee he devotes about two-thirds of the book to the former beverage, kicking off with a section that provides an overview of the History of Tea. While some of the information provided is interesting and worthwhile, some of it should be taken with a grain of salt, including the notion that black and green tea come from different tea plants.

Given Alcott’s interest in matters of health, it’s probably not surprising that the rest of the space devoted to tea — four chapters worth — looks at its potential impact on the health of those who consume it. Unfortunately, like a number of other early commentators on tea, Alcott is of the opinion that tea is not particularly good for us.

If you need any more “proof” of this, there’s plenty of it scattered throughout this work. Take, for instance, Chapter IV, which presents the argument in no uncertain terms. The chapter bears the title Tea A Poison and it opens with this unambiguous assertion, “we are now to show that tea is absolutely poisonous.” If this isn’t stated strongly enough for you, then consider Alcott’s notion, presented a few pages later, that “a strong decoction” of tea can “destroy vermin infesting open hearths, fire-places, beds, &c.”

If you’re sufficiently alarmed by all of this railing against tea and thinking of maybe making the switch to coffee, well, you’re out of luck, at least according to Alcott. He doesn’t devote as much space to exposing the evils of coffee but his conclusions regarding that beverage are pretty much along the same lines.

A cup a day?
A cup a day?

Fortunately, these outmoded ways of thinking about tea have pretty much fallen by the wayside. These days some commentators and tea sellers may have actually gone to the other extreme, inflating the potential range of health benefits for tea drinkers, but the general consensus nonetheless is that tea is far from being a poison.

So relax and drink up.

Editor’s note: The author fails to mention that Alcott is the father of author Louisa May Alcott (Little Women, Little Men, etc.).

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One thought on “Tea and Coffee Circa 1839

  1. The Jeffersonville Scribe

    And what of the ritual itself? Isn’t it perhaps the most important part of the experience of sipping a cup of tea, or coffee for that matter? Poison, sometimes (or often) is found in our thoughts and beliefs more than in the food and beverages we consume. Very enjoyable and smart article.

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