Jonas Hanway’s Essay on Tea

Jonas Hanway's complete book where the essay on tea appears
Jonas Hanway's complete book where the essay on tea appears

It’s probably not surprising that so many English commentators of yesteryear felt compelled to pick up a pen and share their thoughts about tea. After all, tea was a relative newcomer to their island nation, only turning up in the middle portion of the seventeenth century and not really hitting it big for at least another half century after that.

Opinions among these commentators tended to be rather mixed, if the truth be told. While some of them did everything short of running through the streets (tea) drunkenly singing the praises of tea, there were probably just as many who felt that it was a vile substance that, if left unchecked, would contribute to the breakdown of law and order and the end of humanity as we know it.

We could safely put Jonas Hanway (1712 – 1786) in this latter category, at least based on the thoughts he expressed in his 1757 An Essay on Tea. The piece is actually part of a larger work, a two-volume book that he published in that same year, called A Journal of Eight Days Journey from Portsmouth to Kingston Upon Thames.

Hanway, if we’re to believe Wikipedia, was an “English traveller and philanthropist” and was apparently the “first Londoner, it is said, to carry an umbrella.” The unwieldy title of his diatribe on tea, excerpted from the even more unwieldy full title of the book, gives a pretty good indication of his not so complimentary opinions about tea, An Essay On Tea, Considered As Pernicious To Health, Obstructing Industry, And Impoverishing The Nation: With An Account Of Its Growth And Great Consumption In These Kingdoms.

The author devotes no small amount of his work to detailing the assorted and sundry evils that tea had already wrought in England. Among the various maladies he blames on its consumption are distempers, scurvy and weak nerves, just to name a few.

Today, tea is more popular than ever!
Today, tea is more popular than ever!

Though Hanway’s dry writing style doesn’t exactly make this a book that you’ll want to take to the beach, at least one of his contemporaries read enough of it to get his back up and write a lively rebuttal. That would be the infamous Samuel Johnson, who was proud to be a self-proclaimed “hardened and shameless tea-drinker.” More on his throwdown with Hanway in this article, which includes a link to the review he wrote of Hanway’s book.

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