Discourses on Tea and More

Tea was still relatively new to England in 1750, when Thomas Short wrote about it. It was not yet the runaway hit it would later become, but tea‘s popularity was already experiencing a marked upswing. With a title like Discourses on Tea, Sugar, Milk, Made-wines, Spirits, Punch, Tobacco: With Plain and Useful Rules for Gouty People, Short’s book is obviously not going to make for gripping beach reading and to be perfectly honest it’s more useful for its historical interest than anything else.

Tea leaves (Photo source: stock image)
Tea leaves (Photo source: stock image)

Short was apparently a physician who also wrote a book on the medicinal properties of plants and another on the history of weather, among other things. He kicks off this tome on beverages with the section on tea, devoting to the topic about nine chapters and 75 pages of a book that tallies more than 400 pages in all.

Things get underway with a description of “the Tea Shrub, Leaf, Flowers, and Seeds.” While it’s quite extensive don’t give Short too much credit since it seems that the whole thing is borrowed from an earlier writer. In Chapter 2, Short moves on to discuss growing and harvesting tea, apparently in his own words. The chapter, oddly enough, is focused on the situation in Japan. Oddly, given that so many accounts of yesteryear seem to be more focused on the thriving tea trade between China and Europe.

Next up is a very in-depth chapter on processing tea, followed by one devoted to “Promiscuous Observations on the above Chapters.” Chapter 5 tackles “The Commercial History of Tea” and dates it all the way back to the year 519, when it appeared on the table of the “eminent Pagan Saint Darma,” of India. This is actually a retelling of a quaint tea legend, in this case the one about Bodhidharma, a Buddhist priest who allegedly cut off his eyebrows, which fell to the ground, sprouted and became tea. Short notes that tea came to Europe around 1610, courtesy of the Dutch, and carries on in painstaking detail for a while, complete with more facts and figures than most contemporary readers will need.

Also worth noting, a chapter on how tea is used and consumed, in which Short notes that the Tartars boil it with milk and the Japanese grind the leaves to a powder, just to name a few. While most commentators of the day came down pretty firmly on one side or the other regarding tea’s health benefits or lack thereof, Short presents a somewhat balanced examination of this issue, though the chapter on tea’s “Virtues” is quite a bit longer than the one that looks at its “bad Effects.”

Whether you’re “gouty” or not you might find Short’s book an interesting historical look at the tea production and culture of a few centuries ago. Check out a version here.

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