The Truth About Lie Tea

I’ve been writing about tea for a while now, and I’d like to think that I know a few things. Maybe I actually do. But from time to time I run across a tea-related tidbit I’d never heard of before.

Take lie tea, for instance. I first encountered the term recently, when I was writing about Thomas De Witt Talmage’s book, Around The Tea-Table. As I noted in that article, the author recounted the unpleasant effects that might result (lawsuits, black eyes, and so on) when lie tea was served.

Always truthful and unadulterated! (ETS image)
Always truthful and unadulterated! (ETS image)

But before we go on I guess a word of explanation is in order. Lie tea, to put it simply, is a term that’s presumably not used much anymore. But it was once used to refer to the common practice, in earlier times, of adulterating tea with substances that ranged from fairly innocuous to downright toxic.

As Talmage put it, some of these adulterations might include, “green tea, prepared by large infusion of Prussian blue and gypsum, or black tea mixed with pulverized black lead.” The author then states that according to the English Parliament about two million pounds of lie tea had been imported there (though he doesn’t specify a time frame), while Talmage himself somehow arrives at the conclusion that the same amount was imported into the United States.

Looking for additional references to this lie tea, I found a reference as early as 1774 in a journal called The Chemical News and Journal of Industrial Science. It also makes a reference to something called caper tea, an unsavory sounding delicacy described as “tea which has been made up into little glossy masses by the aid of gum (or starch).”

In 1861, a Virginia newspaper reported on a study published by the journal, The Lancet, which looked at 24 samples of black tea and 24 more of green. Though they found that all of the black tea was “genuine,” the bad news for green tea drinkers was that all of it was adulterated. They defined lie tea a little differently, calling it “a leaf which resembles the tea leaf closely, and is sent to this country from China in vast quantities, to be employed in adulterations here.”

Six decades later this sort of thing was still going on, at least according to an article in a Colorado newspaper titled “Lie Tea Deserves Name.” It’s a brief piece that relates in grim detail what lie tea is and what substances are used in its creation. Some of the substances that might turn up in lie tea included magnetic oxide of iron, powdered soapstone, clay, sand and pulverized quartz.

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

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