“A Popular Treatise on Tea” by John Sumner

Typhoo tea
Typhoo tea

If you head out to the Internet looking for tea books from yesteryear, you’ll find enough to keep you occupied for a very long time. I’ve written about quite a few such works in these very pages, but to the best of my recall I can’t think of one that was written by an author who later went on to found a well-known tea company.

Until I recently ran across a book called A Popular Treatise on Tea: Its Qualities and Effects, that is. This particular tome first saw the light of day in 1863 and its author was John Sumner. Along with his father William, Sumner later founded a grocery business that went on to become Typhoo Tea, though it was apparently John Sumner, Jr., who took the firm into the territory of tea selling. Trivia fans, take note: the name Typhoo is apparently derived from a Chinese word for doctor.

Sumner opens the book with the bold statement that “the great Anglo-Saxon race are essentially a tea-drinking people.” Which is a matter that could probably be disputed, given that Europeans had only been drinking tea for about two centuries. But there’s no disputing his further assertion that among said people tea was now considered “one of the necessaries of life.”

From there the book is broken down into a structure that’s fairly typical for these kinds of works, starting with a chapter on the history of tea and moving on to one that looks at various botanical aspects of the plant. From there it’s a chapter on the assorted and sundry varieties of black and green tea that were popular at the time, many of which (Twankay, Hyson Skin, Imperial) will be unfamiliar to tea drinkers nowadays.

Chapter four tackles an unusual topic, looking at various tea substitutes used in other parts of the world. Among them are coffee; Paraguay Tea, or what we know today as yerba mate, and enough other items to fill a large chart. Other chapters look at the chemistry of tea, in which Sumner remarks on the beneficial compound theine, or what we know today as theanine.

Sumner also looks at the medicinal properties of tea and summarizes the various pros and cons regarding its consumption. He winds things up with a chapter on the social influence of tea, where he quotes an earlier writer who goes so far as to make the grand statement “tea and the discontinuance of barbarism are connected in the way of cause and effect.”

Here, here.

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