An American merchant who spent much of his life living in China, Gideon Nye wrote a number of books on various aspects of Chinese studies, many of which are available in your favorite free digital archive. For purposes of this article, the most noteworthy of these tomes was the 1850 volume (the third edition) he penned that was titled, Tea and the Tea Trade: Parts First and Second.
Parts of the text first appeared in a periodical known as Hunt’s Merchants Magazine and were later collected into book form. It’s a brief volume but Nye kicks it off with no small amount of praise for tea (“the article of Tea takes the first rank in the history of Commerce”). At the time tea production was an industry that was still almost exclusively limited to China. But changes were on the way, since this was around the time that the fledgling tea industry in India was just getting underway.
By this time the British had acquired quite a raging thirst for tea and, as Nye points out, the annual duties on tea imported into Great Britain was about 25 million dollars, which was no small potatoes, especially considering the value of a dollar nearly two centuries ago. Of course, when talking about the Chinese, British and tea, one can hardly ignore the opium trade that also flourished around this time – and Nye doesn’t, remarking that the British government was making 23 million dollars a year on this trade just five years earlier.
After which it’s on to a fairly in-depth discussion of what the author perceived as the heavy taxes on tea. It’s a section of the narrative that might scare off all but the most intrepid tea historians but then Nye goes on to discuss the trade with the United States. The trade there had been exempt from taxation since 1832 but Nye points out that inhabitants of the new nation were drinking quite a bit less tea than their former colonial overlords. He attributes this to the poor quality of the tea available there, as well as a lack of knowledge about how to prepare it properly (an observation that some Brits still make about us to this very day).
Nye also includes a section which offers some Testimonials of the Value of Tea, as well as Chinese Directions for the Preparation of Tea as a Beverage. The more modern counterpart to the latter is simply titled How to Make a Good Cup of Tea. From here it’s on to part two of the book, which includes a brief history of the tea industry and more facts and figures on the current British and U.S. trade, as well as a discussion of pricing. Though not mentioned in the title, part three is essentially more of the same. All of which can be a bit dry in spots, but the price is certainly right. Get you free digital copy here.
See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.
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