Tea Pioneers: Thomas Lipton

Sylvakandy Estate Orange Pekoe
Sylvakandy Estate Orange Pekoe

If you ask the average person on the street to name a brand of tea, chances are pretty good that they’re going to come up with Lipton. Which is not surprising, since, as the company points out at their web site, “Lipton is the world’s best-known and best-selling brand of tea.”

But of course it wasn’t always that way. Even the biggest guns in the business world had to get their start somewhere and in the case of Lipton Tea it all began with one Thomas Lipton, who traveled the world and kicked around in a number of jobs early in life before returning to his native Scotland and taking up in the grocery business, as his parents had done before him.

By about 1890, some two decades after getting into the grocery trade, Lipton had made a considerable fortune for himself. While traveling on holiday around that time, he made a stop in the Asian island nation of Ceylon. The coffee crop here had been wiped out by disease a few decades earlier and tea was beginning to take hold in its place. Lipton invested in properties in Ceylon and began growing and exporting tea. His prices tended to be more affordable than many of his competitors and he introduced some packaging and marketing innovations that helped make his tea business as successful or perhaps even more so than his other business ventures.

Which is Thomas Lipton’s story in the tiniest of nutshells and obviously, it’s a story that deserves to be told in more detail. Which is exactly what assorted and sundry authors have sought to do. A cursory search reveals that numerous books have been written about Lipton in the eight decades since his demise. While many of these are somewhat obscure nowadays there are a few that may be of interest to modern-day readers.

Not surprisingly, given that he was once a sailor by trade and then later as an avocation, some of these books focus as much on Lipton’s unsuccessful attempts to win the America’s Cup yacht race as they do on his tea selling and other ventures. They include The Man Who Challenged America: The Life and Obsession of Sir Thomas Lipton (2007), by Laurence Brady, and A Full Cup: Sir Thomas Lipton’s Extraordinary Life and His Quest for the America’s Cup (2010), by Michael D’Antonio. For a review of the latter volume by yours truly, look here.

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