On the Adulteration of Tea

For tea drinkers these days it’s probably a pretty safe bet that if you’re dealing with a somewhat reputable tea merchant you’ll get the tea you’re paying for. In other words, you’ll get the tea leaves that were advertised without anything else added to the mix.

Friedrich Accum
Friedrich Accum, From the European Magazine (1820) engraving by James Thomson

Which wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time the adulteration of tea was so common that various commentators from days gone by were impelled to write about the issue. The problem was a widespread one and certainly not limited to tea, as a certain book indicates, a volume with the not so compact title, A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons Exhibiting the Fraudulent Sophistications of Bread, Beer, Wine, Spiritous Liquors, Tea, Coffee, Cream, Confectionery, Vinegar, Mustard, Pepper, Cheese, Olive Oil, Pickles, and Other Articles Employed in Domestic Economy, and Methods Of Detecting Them.

Said treatise was published in 1820 by a German chemist named Friedrich Christian Accum, who was also a pioneer in the field of gas lighting. The book, which bore the slogan “there is death in the pot,” chronicled the use of additives and preservatives that had recently begun coming into widespread use and which ran the gamut from rather innocuous to downright poisonous. Accum didn’t shy away from naming the names of those merchants who resorted to such practices and, not surprisingly, this didn’t win him many friends. As a result he was subject to legal harassment, not to mention more immediate threats upon his person.

While the book makes for informative reading overall, it’s the short segment on tea that’s obviously most pertinent to readers of this article. Accum begins by listing a number of actual cases pulled from the local newspapers over a four month period in 1818. Among the various ways unscrupulous merchants conspired to pull the wool over tea drinker’s eyes are by substituting the leaves of other plants for tea leaves, including sloe, elder and ash leaves, among others. To help combat this issue, Accum provides drawings of tea and other leaves to help with visual identification, though this would do little to stave off other methods of fraud, such as adding used tea leaves to new ones.

Though it doesn’t necessarily make for scintillating reading, Accum’s book is available these days in various free electronic editions, including this one from Project Gutenberg.

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One thought on “On the Adulteration of Tea

  1. Pingback: The Curious (Court) Case of He-No Tea « Tea Blog

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