The History of the Perfect Cup of Tea

I write a few monthly columns for this site, one about tea books and one about tea gadgets and offbeat news. Though it might seem otherwise, I don’t actually write on a monthly basis about perfect tea. But I’ve covered the topic many times already and I’m about to do it one more time. For a look at a recent article on the topic, click here.

Scenes from one of ETS's videos on tea - How to Make the Perfect Cup!
Scenes from one of ETS’s videos on tea – How to Make the Perfect Cup!

As I’ve said many times, the notion that perfection in tea can be achieved is a lofty one, but it doesn’t stop hordes of people from providing advice on the matter. Not long ago I began to wonder how long this sort of thing has been going on and so I commenced to do some snooping around.

As it turns out, the concept of tea perfection is hardly a new one. The earliest reference I was able to find dates all the way back to 1859, in a book called The Kangaroo Hunters; or, Adventures in the Bush, by Anne Bowman. It’s apparently a work of fiction and finds a group of travelers though Australia making do with some sort of unnamed tea substitute, which, as one remarks falls, short of being a “perfect cup of tea.”

The next reference to a perfect cup of tea comes in an 1875 edition of a magazine called The Christian Miscellany, and Family Visiter. In the Home-Making section of an article called Talks About Minor Morals, the author stresses the importance of learning the basics, including making a perfect cup of tea. A similar reference also occurs three years later in The Dining-room, by Martha Jane Loftie, a tome which instructs the reader in how to furnish their dining rooms.

The term again makes an appearance, in 1888, in The Neighborhood Nabob, a story in the American Magazine, in which the protagonist enjoys a perfect cup of tea and a servant brings his slippers. A more mundane reference to the same comes a year later in a glorified brochure of some length by a firm called Chase & Sanborn, Tea and Coffee Importers.

If you’re looking for phrases like “how to make a perfect cup of tea” or “how to prepare a perfect cup of tea” you can’t go quite so far back into the historical record, although it should be noted that they are very numerous nowadays. The earliest instances of the former that I was able to locate date back to 1953 and refer to a demonstration to be given by one Charles F. Hutchinson, the United States Tea Examiner, who was slated to demonstrate how to make a perfect cup of tea at a trade show.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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