Australia, home of billy tea

Australia, home of billy tea

For tea at its most basic (and probably hair-raisingly strong) you might try preparing it in the manner that’s used in the Australian bush – using a billycan, sometimes simply referred to as a billy. Rather than attempt to instruct you in this art I’ll point you to our previous articles on the topic. As the story goes, this no-frills item of tea gadgetry took its name from the cans that were used to ship corned beef to Australia, which back in the day were pressed into service to make tea.

It might sound like pretty simple stuff, but according to at least one scholar, it might not be so, at least not if you closely analyze a certain popular song that references this object. Death Watch: Reading the Common Object of the Billycan in ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is some pretty deep stuff, if you ask me, but there it is. For a more down to earth explanation of why there were two versions of this great old Australian tune, one that was altered a bit in service of product placement, have a look at this article from the Australian press.

As the article notes, there was once an actual Billy Tea Company. Further research reveals that this was started by a Scottish businessman in 1881 and a couple decades later began using said song to push its products. Some decades later the song was so popular that it received a substantial chunk of votes recommending it as a new national anthem – which didn’t happen. More details here and have a look at some Billy Tea advertising material here.

It’s hard to say exactly when this sort of thing came about but one of the oldest references I was able to find comes from 1849. In a volume called The Working Man’s Handbook to South Australia: With Advice to the Farmer, and Detailed Information for the Several Classes of Labourers and Artizans, by George Blakinston Wilkinson, the billy is synonymous with a tea kettle. But for the last word on billycans, billy tea and the like don’t miss this article from the National Museum of Australia that’s enhanced with a number of interesting photos and drawings.

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

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