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Early American Tea Drinking

The United States and tea go back a long way, back to the time before there was a United States. The Boston Tea Party was, of course, a pivotal event in American history. But since we’ve written about this topic a number of times already there’s no need to retread that ground much. Tea parties aside, early Americans had a significant relationship to tea. Not surprising, given that we started as a colony of Britain, where tea eventually became a very big deal.

It’s hard to separate tea from politics in colonial times. Especially considering that luminaries like Paul Revere made part of his living from crafting pricey teapots and John Hancock profited from shipping tea to the colonies. Tea first came to this region courtesy of the Dutch. As the British influence became more pronounced there so did their favorite drinks such as tea and coffee, as well as the coffeehouse tradition that became so popular in London and elsewhere in the mid-eighteenth century. Tea was particularly popular in – but certainly not limited to – major cities like Boston and Philadelphia.

According to the laws of the land, all tea that came to the American colonies had to be provided by parties authorized by the British. But there was a thriving trade in smuggled tea that, according to some sources, comprised as much as 75 percent of all tea imports. Which was not at all unlike the situation in Britain, a situation that changed on both sides of the ocean when the British enacted a significant reduction of tea taxes in 1784.

Of course, by that time a number of tea parties and a war of independence had taken place and a new country had been founded. Many colonists cut back on their tea drinking during these politically charged times, often turning to Liberty Tea, which was comprised of various “herbal” substitutes that could sort of pass for tea in a pinch.

Many assume that the tea-related turmoil that led to its founding caused the citizens of this new country to swear off tea altogether. Which might have been the case right after the war but it’s hardly the whole truth. Tea was a staple at Washington’s Mount Vernon before and after the war and a Philadelphia tea smuggler who helped finance the war also backed the first official American voyage to trade for tea with China. Green tea (which comprised about one-fifth of the tea that ended up in Boston Harbor) made up a significant share of the American tea market in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and by the second half of the latter much of it was being imported from Japan.

Nowadays, of course, the US is generally considered to be more of a coffee drinking nation. How this came about would undoubtedly make for an interesting story but it’s one that will have to be told elsewhere.

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

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One response to “Early American Tea Drinking”

  1. […] an article I recently wrote on tea drinking in the American colonies and the early United States I mentioned […]

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