In 1876, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the American Revolution, Congress passed a joint resolution to devote the Rotunda of the Capitol to celebrating the Boston Tea Party. Joining celebrations nationwide, this was the first time this governmental building was used for public ceremonies of this kind. Apparently, theses centennial celebrations directly correlated tea with American independence.In reflecting on the Boston Tea Party, popular histories claim that the Boston Tea Party marked the beginning of the end of the popularity of tea drinking in the U.S., and after ten years of boycott from 1773 to 1783, tea was phased out and a taste for coffee developed. But is that true? In this coffee-drinking country, this explanation appears convenient and convincing, especially when considering the statistics: while per capita coffee consumption was only 0.125 pounds in 1783, it reached 7.09 pounds in 1880. By contrast, tea consumption was 0.8 pounds per person per year in 1770 and 1.39 pounds a century later.
However, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find a different story. In reality, the official ban on tea sale lasted less than two years, and colonists’ demand for tea often outpaced their political activism. These writers, most of whom may be coffee drinkers, may have also forgotten that tea leaves are much lighter and more economical than coffee beans. With a six-ounce cup, a pound of tea yields about 180 cups of tea, while a pound of coffee makes only about 50 cups. Moreover, tea leaves can be used more than once. Bohea, the once-popular cheap black tea, lost its strength with three waters. Hyson and Gunpowder, the most popular green teas in nineteenth-century America, bore four to five waters. Once making a second cup with the same tea leaves, Americans still took more cups of tea than coffee through the century.
While tea-taking was a marker of social status during the colonial period, Robert Waln Jr. of Philadelphia noticed in 1819 that tea had “obtained, in actual use, an importance almost equivalent to that of bread.” Few families in the U.S., “however humble their situation,” could not afford this exhilarating beverage. Waln’s statement was not an exaggeration. Before the more well-known afternoon tea was introduced into the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century, tea had played a big part in Americans’ home lives. Tea remained essential to people’s breakfast and sometimes served as an after-dinner beverage. Moreover, tea was the evening meal for nineteenth-century Americans. Supper, served at a later hour, was the fourth meal for some people, particularly the well-offs.
During teatime, a well-equipped tea table had a set of items, including a tea pot, cups and saucers, cream pitcher, sugar bowl, slop bowl, tea chest, tea urn, teaspoons, and tongs. A hot water kettle and coffee pot were often included as well. In the 1880s, when afternoon teas were considered informal events, hostesses’ tea trays still “should contain cups, saucers, spoons, doilies, plates, sugar-bowl, slop-bowl, cream-pitcher, thin slices of lemon, tea-pot, caddy, and kettle.” ¹ Although households of humble backgrounds might reduce the pieces of their tea sets, most of these items remained basic to tea taking through the nineteenth century.
The democratization of tea consumption, however, gradually diminished the visibility of tea, as everyday occurrences are usually too unimpressive to note. Tea no longer served as a status marker. George L. Miller and Amy C. Earls, archaeologists specializing in ceramics, noted that while before the 1860s, 70 to 100% of teawares were painted and printed vessels, the postbellum years saw a dramatic shift to creamware and white granite wares (vessels without color decoration), which had been more common for tablewares. The tea table had also been an item of conspicuous consumption by the mid-century, but according to furniture experts at Winterthur Museum and the National Museum of American History, tea tables from the latter nineteenth century are rare. Smaller and cheaper teapoys were likely to be used to hold the tea sets.
The fast pace of industrialization and urbanization furthered the inconspicuousness of tea. In the late nineteenth century, professionals and factory workers didn’t have time to rush back home for a hearty mid-day dinner, so they had lunch instead and dined in the evening. While the evening meal shifted from tea to dinner, the composition of the vessels used to serve them also changed. Teaware and dinnerware, which had been separated in function and decoration, were combined into one set of service from the 1880s.
In the meantime, the popularity of coffee grew during this period, not only because of the influx of coffee-drinking immigrants, but also due to the modernization of coffee making in the U.S.. Before the 1870s, housewives had to roast and grind coffee beans themselves at home. During the Civil War, grocers in the Union began to roast coffee for consumers. The invention of vacuum-packed coffee and modern stove-top percolators at the very end of the century allowed people to brew palatable coffee more easily, thus greatly promoting its consumption.
Consequently, the composition of tea and coffee service changed. For most of the nineteenth century, coffeewares were subordinate to tea services. A complete set of a coffee service was rare, and the coffee pot had been a vessel included in a tea set. However, in the late nineteenth century, coffee services appeared in trade catalogues, which also advertised coffee tables, resembling tea tables in shape and size. Moreover, hardware companies even suggested the same pot or service for both tea and coffee, indicating a growing casualness in taking tea. In a word, no matter whether the line between tea and coffee wares hardened or blurred, tea consumption lowered in stature.
Although per capita tea consumption continued to grow during the Gilded Age, tea culture started to fade away from Americans’ memories, while coffee became more visible in popular culture. Centennial celebrations of the American Revolution during this era inspired people to interpret the “decline” of tea consumption as a consequence of Americans’ urge for liberty, thus re-politicizing tea as a symbol of American independence. However, is this history or merely a story that people were more willing to tell?
Post by Dan Du, Research Fellow, Winterthur, and Visiting Assistant Professor, History Department, Wake Forest University
¹ Florence Howe Hall, Social Customs (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1887), 158.
Merritt, Jane T.. “Tea Trade, Consumption, and the Republican Paradox in Prerevolutionary Philadelphia,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol.128, no. 2 (2004): 117-148.
Miller, George L. and Amy C. Earls. “War and Pots: The Impact of Economics and Politics on Ceramic Consumption Patterns.” Ceramics in America (2008): 67-108.
Shammas, Carole. “Changes in English and Anglo-American Consumption.” In John Brewer and Roy Porter, ed., Consumption and the World of Goods (New York: Routledge, 2013), 177-205.
Topik, Steven. “How Mrs. Olson Got Her Full-Bodied Coffee: The Industrialization of the Coffee Service Sector in the United States, 1760-1950.” American Studies Group, University of California at Irvine, April, 2004.