Excerpts From “The Little Tea Book” – English Tea History

Edited excerpts from, “The Little Tea Book”, first published in 1903.


Tea was brought into Europe by the DUTCH EAST INDIA COMPANY, in 1610. It was at least forty, and perhaps forty-seven, years later that England woke up to the fascinations of the new drink. Dr. Johnson puts it at even a later date, for he claims that tea was first introduced into England by Lords Arlington and Ossory, in 1666, and really made its debut into society when the wives of these noblemen gave it its vogue.

If Dr. Johnson’s statement is intended to mean that nothing is anything until the red seal of the select says, “Thus shall it be,” he is right in the year he has selected. If, on the other hand, the Doctor had in mind society at large, he is “mixed in his dates,” or leaves, for tea was drawn and drunk in London nine years before that date.

Garway, the founder of Garraway’s coffee house, claimed the honor of being first to offer tea in leaf and drink for public sale, in 1657. It is pretty safe to fix the entrance of tea into Europe even a few years ahead of his announcement, for merchants in those days did not advertise their wares in advance.

However, this date is about the beginning of TEA TIME, for in the Mercurius Politicius of September, 1658, appeared the following advertisement:

That excellent and by all Physitians approved China drink, called by the Chineans, Tcha, by other nations, Tay, or Tea, is sold at the Sultana’s Head, a Copphee House, in Sweetings Rents, by the Royal Exchange, London.

Like all new things, when they have fastened on to the public’s favor, tea was on everybody’s lips and in everybody’s mouth. It was lauded to the skies, and was supposed to be good for all the ills of the flesh. It would cure colds and consumption, clear the sight, remove lassitude, purify the liver, improve digestion, create appetite, strengthen the memory, and cure fever and ague.

One panegyrist says, while never putting the patient in mind of his disease, it cheers the heart, without disordering the head; strengthens the feet of the old, and settles the heads of the young; cools the brain of the hard drinker, and warms that of the sober student; relieves the sick, and makes the healthy better. Epicures drink it for want of an appetite; bon vivants, to remove the effects of a surfeit of wine; gluttons, as a remedy for indigestion; politicians, for the vertigo; doctors, for drowsiness; prudes, for the vapors; wits, for the spleen; and beaux to improve their complexions; summing up, by declaring tea to be a treat for the frugal, a regale for the luxurious, a successful agent for the man of business, and a bracer for the idle.

Poets and verse-makers joined the chorus in praise of tea, in Greek and Latin. One poet pictures Hebe pouring the delightful cup for the goddesses, who, finding it made their beauty brighter and their wit more brilliant, drank so deeply as to disgust Jupiter, who had forgotten that he, himself,

“Drank tea that happy morn,
When wise Minerva of his brain was born.”

Laureant Tate, who wrote a poem on tea in two cantos, described a family jar among the fair deities, because each desired to become the special patroness of the ethereal drink destined to triumph over wine. Another versifier exalts it at the expense of its would-be rival, coffee:

“In vain would coffee boast an equal good,
The crystal stream transcends the flowing mud,
Tea, even the ills from coffee spring repairs,
Disclaims its vices and its virtues shares.”

Another despairing enthusiast exclaims:

“Hail, goddess of the vegetable, hail!
To sing thy worth, all words, all numbers, fail!”

The new beverage did not have the field all to itself, however, for, while it was generally admitted that

Tea was fixed, and come to stay.
It could not drive good meat and drink away.

Lovers of the old and conservative customs of the table were not anxious to try the novelty. Others shied at it; some flirted with it, in tiny teaspoonfuls; others openly defied and attacked it. Among the latter were a number of robust versifiers and physicians.

“Twas better for each British virgin,
When on roast beef, strong beer and sturgeon,
Joyous to breakfast they sat round,
Nor were ashamed to eat a pound.”

The fleshly school of doctors were only too happy to disagree with their brethren respecting the merits and demerits of the new-fangled drink; and it is hard to say which were most bitter, the friends or the foes of tea.

Maria Theresa’s physician, Count Belchigen, attributed the discovery of a number of new diseases to the debility born of daily tea-drinking. Dr. Paulli denied that it had either taste or fragrance, owing its reputation entirely to the peculiar vessels and water used by the Chinese, so that it was folly to partake of it, unless tea-drinkers could supply themselves with pure water from the Vassie and the fragrant tea-pots of Gnihing. This sagacious sophist and dogmatizer also discovered that, among other evils, tea-drinking deprived its devotees of the power of expectoration, and entailed sterility; wherefore he hoped Europeans would thereafter keep to their natural beverages–wine and ale–and reject coffee, chocolate, and tea, which were all equally bad for them.

In spite of the array of old-fashioned doctors, wits, and lovers of the pipe and bottle, who opposed evil effects, sneered at the finely bred men of England being turned into women, and grumbled at the stingy custom of calling for dish-water after dinner, the custom of tea-drinking continued to grow. By 1689 the sale of the leaf had increased sufficiently to make it politic to reduce the duty on it from eight pence on the decoction to five shillings a pound on the leaf. The value of tea at this time may be estimated from a customhouse report of the sale of a quantity of divers sorts and qualities, the worst being equal to that “used in coffee-houses for making single tea,” which, being disposed of by “inch of candle,” fetched an average of twelve shillings a pound.

During the next three years the consumption of tea was greatly increased; but very little seems to have been known about it by those who drank it–if we may judge from the enlightenment received from a pamphlet, given gratis, “up one flight of stairs, at the sign of the Anodyne Necklace, without Temple Bar.” All it tells us about tea is that it is the leaf of a little shoot growing plentifully in the East Indies; that Bohea–called by the French “Bean Tea”–is best of a morning with bread and butter, being of a more nourishing nature than the green which may be used when a meal is not wanted. Three or four cups at a sitting are enough; and a little milk or cream renders the beverage smoother and more powerful in blunting the acid humors of the stomach.

The satirists believed that tea had a contrary effect upon the acid humors of the mind, making the tea-table the arena for the display of the feminine capacity for backbiting and scandal. Listen to Swift describe a lady enjoying her evening cups of tea:

“Surrounded with the noisy clans
Of prudes, coquettes and harridans.
Now voices over voices rise,
While each to be the loudest vies;
They contradict, affirm, dispute,
No single tongue one moment mute;
All mad to speak, and none to hearken,
They set the very lapdog barking;
Their chattering makes a louder din
Than fish-wives o’er a cup of gin;
Far less the rabble roar and rail
When drunk with sour election ale.”

Even gentle Gay associated soft tea with the temper of women when he pictures Doris and Melanthe abusing all their bosom friends, while–

“Through all the room
From flowery tea exhales a fragrant fume.”

But not all the women were tea-drinkers in those days. There was Madam Drake, the proprietress of one of the three private carriages Manchester could boast. Few men were as courageous as she in declaring against the tea-table when they were but invited guests. Madam Drake did not hesitate to make it known when she paid an afternoon’s visit that she expected to be offered her customary solace–a tankard of ale and a pipe of tobacco.

Another female opponent of tea was the Female Spectator, which declared the use of the fluid to be not only expensive, but pernicious; the utter destruction of all economy, the bane of good housewifery, and the source of all idleness. Tradesmen especially suffered from the habit. They could not serve their customers because their apprentices were absent during the busiest hours of the day drumming up gossips for their mistresses’ tea-tables.

This same censor says that the most temperate find themselves obliged to drink wine freely after tea, or supplement their Bohea with rum and brandy, the bottle and glass becoming as necessary to the tea-table as the slop-basin.

Although Jonas Hanway, the father of the umbrella, was successful in keeping off water, he was not successful in keeping out tea. All he did accomplish in his essay on the subject was to call forth a reply from Dr. Johnson, who, strange to say, instead of vigorously defending his favorite tipple, rather excuses it as an amiable weakness; confessing that tea is a barren superfluity, fit only to amuse the idle, relax the studious, and dilute the meals of those who cannot take exercise, and will not practise abstinence. His chief argument in tea’s favor is that it is drunk in no great quantity even by those who use it most, and as it neither exhilarates the heart nor stimulates the palate, is, after all, but a nominal entertainment, serving as a pretence for assembling people together, for interrupting business, diversifying idleness; admitting that, perhaps, while gratifying the taste, without nourishing the body, it is quite unsuited to the lower classes.

It is a singular fact, too, that at that period there was no other really vigorous defender of the beverage. All the best of the other writers did was to praise its pleasing qualities, associations, and social attributes.

Still, tea grew in popular favor, privately and publicly. The custom had now become so general that every wife looked upon the tea-pot, cups, and caddy to be as much her right by marriage as the wedding-ring itself. Fine ladies enjoyed the crowded public entertainments with tea below stairs and ventilators above. Citizens, fortunate enough to have leaden roofs to their houses, took their tea and their ease thereon. On Sundays, finding the country lanes leading to Kensington, Hampstead, Highgate, Islington, and Stepney, “to be much pleasanter than the paths of the gospel,” the people flocked to those suburban resorts with their wives and children, to take tea under the trees. In one of Coleman’s plays, a Spitalfield’s dame defines the acme of elegance as:

“Drinking tea on summer afternoons
At Bagnigge Wells with china and gilt spoons.”

London was surrounded with tea-gardens, the most popular being Sadlier’s Wells, Merlin’s Cave, Cromwell Gardens, Jenny’s Whim, Cuper Gardens, London Spa, and the White Conduit House, where they used to take in fifty pounds on a Sunday afternoon for sixpenny tea-tickets.

One D’Archenholz was surprised by the elegance, beauty, and luxury of these resorts, where, Steele said, they swallowed gallons of the juice of tea, while their own dock leaves were trodden under foot.

The ending of the East India Company’s monopoly of the trade, coupled with the fact that the legislature recognized that tea had passed out of the catalogue of luxuries into that of necessities, began a new era for the queen of drinks destined to reign over all other beverages.


The complete unedited text of “The Little Tea Book” can be viewed at gutenberg.org: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19392 .