Oolong Tea – A Historical Perspective

This will hardly be a thesis, but I thought it might be interesting to get a little bit of historical perspective on oolong, that type of tea that is generally less known than black and green but better known than relatively obscure teas such as white, yellow, and puerh. Needless to say it’s not mentioned quite as often in historical records as black or green tea, but it does come in for a mention now and then.

English Tea Store brand Oolong Teas (ETS image)
English Tea Store brand Oolong Teas (ETS image)

One of the earliest references I was able to locate was from 1798, in a book called Around the Tea-table, by Thomas De Witt Talmage. It’s a rather fanciful book of stories, more or less, as they might be told around a tea table. In the first paragraph the author mentions oolong tea, along with a variety that’s rather obscure these days, “Let the ring of the tea-bell be sharp and musical. Walk into the room fragrant with Oolong or Young Hyson.”

From just ten years later, I ran across a somewhat unlikely reference from none other than the Annual Report of the New York (State) Bureau of Labor Statistics. Which presents a table of wholesale prices of oolong and other types of tea “in the New York market” from the previous decade. At which time Formosa Oolong could be had for as little as 21 cents. That’s presumably for a pound, though it’s not made completely clear.

Even more unlikely, at least a bit, is a reference from the Minnesota Farmers’ Institute Annual, of 1835. If you find it hard to imagine Minnesotans of that day sipping oolong tea, consider that a company currently displaying at the state fair offered a range of goods including oolong tea. In The Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette, from 1844, a number of references are made about oolong tea, describing it in a way that suggests that it’s something of a curiosity and also noting that it is “high-flavoured” and comes from China.

A few years later The Golden Rule and Odd-fellows Family Companion, which was apparently a periodical of the day, waxed rather lyrical about “Divine Oolong,” going on sing the praises of “this oolong, ripe, well-cured,” though it seems that it might all have been part and parcel of an advertisement for the Pekin Tea Company:

And our heart is warmed to kinship
With the Pekin Company:
Well art though named celestial,
Land of the oolong tea!

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

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