When a group of defiant colonists tossed 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor to protest the British and East India Company’s outrageous tax, Americans shunned the beverage in favor of coffee. But only temporarily! Americans had adored tea as much as the British ever since Peter Stuyvesant first brought it over to the colonies in 1650. So when the resentment towards England diminished shortly after the Revolutionary War, they began drinking tea again. The pastime was able to truly take off in 1840, when America began to independently trade with China, and its swift clipper ships ensured more and fresher tea.
Hardly a home lacked tea, which was taken all day, every day—during breakfast, lunch, after dinner, and whenever one desired it. Individual family members took their tea in the bedchamber, the conservatory, and the family sitting room. Tea was also economical: housewives or servants would sprinkle used leaves on floors for fragrance and collecting dust for easy sweeping.
Much like the British, Americans convened for afternoon tea, or low tea. Held in the formal sitting room, or taken al fresco on the veranda or in the garden during summer, afternoon tea was a mental and physical break for all classes. Teatime was also a leisurely occasion for upper-class women, who would converse, sew, or play card games while eating cakes, cookies, tarts, and in-season fruits.
Because black tea was less likely to spoil than green tea during overseas transportation, Americans largely purchased the former. On occasion, however, the upper class was able to enjoy green tea, which was served at evening parties as a secondary option to black tea. Naturally, milk and sugar were added to both, and even extra hot water was provided in case anyone wanted to dilute their tea. The earliest iced tea recipes, which date back to the 1800s, utilized green tea as the base tea and called for liquor as well as sugar.
Teaware was considered a valuable as well as an essential commodity. Possessing the finest china was a contest amongst members of the upper class. To obtain the best, Americans bought teaware from Britain, Europe, or China, putting their most expensive porcelain on display in cabinets.
Because value was at stake, caring for teaware—especially kettles and teapots—involved special attention. In Miss Leslies Lady’s House-Book: A Manual of Domestic Economy, Eliza Leslie provides meticulous instructions for brass kettles, porcelain or enameled kettles, tea kettles, and “tea-things,” requiring not just hot water and soap, but also salt and vinegar, and bran and wood ashes for the brass kettles and enameled kettles, respectively. Leslie also offers advice as to which kind of teaware is more preferable (for example, Wedgwood over Britannia metal for tea pots, since tea tends to absorb copper and taste “almost poisonous” if allowed to infuse in the latter). Moreover, she makes a point to oppose using a tea kettle for anything other than for boiling water, mentioning that some cooks would use it to boil potatoes, which “give a peculiar and disagreeable taste to the tea-water.”
While tea was considered the national drink, Americans did drink coffee, though not as much and as often. In the first half of the 19th century, green coffee beans—which were the most available type of bean at the time—were bought by the pound from local general stores and had to be grounded and roasted at home. Coffee in addition to tea was served after dessert at dinner parties. If men comprised the attendees, then only coffee was provided. Casually, hotel dining rooms offered coffee for both men and women, the latter of whom especially enjoyed visiting these dining rooms while shopping.
Around 1850, the processing of instant coffee began. Instant coffee was cheaper, easier to make at home, and promised to be very fresh in comparison to imported beans. Because of this novel convenience and its higher caffeine content, coffee became more widespread, eventually pervading all economic classes during the remainder of the century. The beverage was a favorite drink for Civil War soldiers.
Miss Leslie’s book (1863 edition) doesn’t leave out coffee, of course. She recommends that it should not be roasted more than a pound at a time (otherwise it would be muddy), and that breakfast coffee was to be mixed with butter and eggs. As for practical applications, Leslie suggests that coffee starch can be utilized to dye chintzes (a glazed calico textile), which can then be worn for times of mourning, thus saving one the trouble of going out and spending extra money to purchase specially-made mourning chintzes.
Contrary to popular belief, late 18th-century and 19th-century Americans did not completely renounce tea in favor of coffee after the Revolution. They loved their tea dearly, and, like the British, went as far as to ritualistically incorporate the beverage into their daily lives, socially and privately. Beginning with the twentieth century, coffee gained momentum and eventually overshadowed tea. Recently, however, tea has been making a comeback, largely in the form of iced tea and newer stores selling loose teas. Perhaps tea drinking will become a favorite pastime for Americans once again!
Sarah Hansen, Museum Intern
Photos by Richard Warren, taken in the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum’s Orangerie during High Time for Low Tea, an annual event at Bartow-Pell.