Early Tea Culture in England

In the early 1600s the Portuguese and Dutch brought tea through trade from China. By about 1610 tea was regularly coming to Europe and being consumed by the upper classes as a luxury item. By 1657 roughly, it was a common item in England, and it was being served in the popular coffee houses in London and around the country.

Guess how much a pound of tea cost at the time? Around £10 and in today’s money that would be roughly £2,000 in today’s money or $2,500 USD! Per ounce that would be $156. Since most workers earned only around £50 a year, this made tea an exclusive treat for the wealthy.

Queen Catherine of Braganza, the Portugese wife of Charles II, introduced the custom of taking tea in 1662 in the English royal court. In about a century the culture of tea was bringing 7 million tons of tea from Canton in China, with about half going out on British ships.  Which also meant it was a financial opportunity for the crown that began taxing tea imports by up to 119% in the mid-18th century.

This also gave rise to smuggling and the sale of cheap, lower-quality or even fake tea on the black market around the United Kingdom. Cutting tea with other ingredients included such things as licorice, sloe, wood pulp and “hawthorn or ash tree leaves boiled in sheep’ dung. Some green teas contained elder buds and others were dyed with copper verdigris.”

When taxes were reduced in 1784 to 12.5% a lot of the smuggling tapered off but the act of bulking up tea would continue through the Victorian era. As a middle class rose with the industrial revolution, the culture of emulating the upper class and having a higher standard of living enhanced the popularity of tea around the nation and into the “New World”.

We all know about the Boston Tea Party right? Well it had a lot to do with high taxes on tea and the British government taxing the colonists. At that time tea was very political for a variety of reasons, including resistance to British culture. Many cartoons of the time depict tea in various ways and even teapots were made to discuss the conflicts of the age. Abolitionists made teaware to also raise attention to plantation conditions in the Caribbean and the farming of sugar, which was used during tea time.

By the beginning of the 1800s tea was more affordable, and now sweetened with sugar and milk. The British quickly adopted tea as the national drink, and while other nations in Europe drink tea, coffee was far more popular and still is.

This tea culture became a domestic culture and a social ritual for women, where it was consumed indoors or in gardens. It was often used as a social gathering tool, inviting women into the home to gather and build close relationships. Culturally ment went to coffee houses to gather and after dinner many men would consume alcohol while women went for tea.

Tea service had many components that were often expensive: “At the very least, a silver teapot, teakettle and canisters, together with porcelain tea-bowls or cups, were required; and many tea equipages included a milk jug, a hot-water pot or urn, a slop basin, a sugar bowl and tongs, a tray, teaspoons, plates and other items. Canisters were often fitted with a lock to prevent servants stealing their contents, and the kettle was usually made of silver, as it was used in front of guests.”

Only after about 1800-20 — by which date tea had slipped down the social scale — were the kettle and canisters confined to the kitchen, where tea was now generally prepared. For much of the 18th century handleless tea-bowls of the type imported from China were preferred to handled-cups.

Satires occasionally show tea being drunk from the saucer, but this was not done in polite company. Guests indicated that they had drunk enough by turning the cup over or placing a teaspoon in the bowl. Until this was done it was considered bad manners to refuse more tea when offered.

Tea rose in popularity, as well, in that it could be served socially without breaking rules of decorum around food. It also meant that people of different social levels could meet and converse which spread values of refinement, politeness, and sociability. This spread around Britain and into the colonies.

Types of Tea

Both green and black teas were consumed in Britain, with black teas being cheaper. In the 1840s when tea was successfully cultivated in India, all British teas came from China. The most popular black tea was behea, with pekoe, souchong and congou also being imported. Green teas were gunpowder, imperial hyson, and singlo. The black teas often were more popular because they were stronger and blended better with milk. Milk had also been previously used in coffee and chocolate to cut the bitter taste and may have made the jump from those treats to tea around 1720.

It was around 1830 that blends such as Earl Grey began showing up in the British market, and obviously have continued into today.

Food and Tea

Culturally the largest meal of the day, dinner, was eaten around 2pm in Britain in the 18th century. As more lighting capabilities such as gas lanterns became more popular and better, dinners moved to later in the day. To bridge the gap from breakfast to dinner, tea was consumed with bread and butter or toast, and sometimes cakes or biscuits. For the poor bread and butter was a staple, enhanced, if they were lucky, by bacon or cheese.

“The British institution of afternoon ‘high tea’ – a meal in its own right, in which has-, cheese- or egg-sandwiches are served together with tea and biscuits and cake – seems to derive from both dining practices. This was firmly established by 1840, and the tradition survives today.”  ~Hilary Young

Tea and Literature

We often view the regency period, that of the early 1800s, as the time in which much of our romance novels and stories developed out of. Especially from female authors. What is neat about tea and the culture of the time is that it went hand in hand with some of the plot points in these stories. Jane Austen frequently wrote about tea in her novels and more importantly the culture of taking tea was huge in the development of women in cultural movements.

While we view Austen’s stories or the Bronte’s as steaming with romance and love, a lot of the stories were filled with social commentary and analysis of women’s lives and places in what was becoming a quickly changing society.






Hamilton and History

The musical Hamilton has brought in a new wave of love and interest in the founding fathers. It has done so with hip-hop, jazz, pop and broadway as its home, yet is it an accurate portrayal of history?

Most historians are suspicious of many mainstream accounts of history. Many ask, what will be left out? What will be mis-said? And what will perpetuate legend and myth without bringing something new to the table?


Yet Hamilton is something new in this telling of the founding fathers. Unlike mid-century musicals and movies that held the founding fathers in a shining god-like light, Hamilton makes the viewer confront historical myths and human mistake.

What helps Hamilton is its base on Ron Chernow‘s massive book on the life and times of Alexander Hamilton and the struggle around the revolution. Chernow’s book resonated with Lin-Manuel Miranda, and when Lin-Manuel sat down to write Hamilton he didn’t throw Chernow’s book in a corner and make his own story, he brought the real Chernow in for some advising and historical context.

If you watch the PBS Great Performances on the making of Hamilton, which follows Lin through creating the musical that has been such a phenomenon, one see just how much the history and the accuracy of the project meant. Lin-Manuel spent a lot of time trying to get everything right and make sure it was telling an honest truth, without compromising the value of a good musical.

He mastered it through and through. While preserving the historical and complicated history of a group of peoples in a three hour musical, he also made it an enjoyable, and as we have seen, massive cultural phenomenon and success! He has made it something more than a play and something more than a historical narrative. At this point in time, Hamilton, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the nerdy son of a Puerto Rican immigrant, are reaching a legendary status.


As more and more people compare Lin to Shakespeare, let’s argue that in fact, his historical story-telling is even stronger and better presented than Shakespeare was able to do in his own time. While Shakespeare often took stories and re-wrote them to convey his own message, Lin-Manuel took a historical book, one that many find too lengthy and complicated, and turned it into the musical it is now. Which is mighty impressive.

If we analyze the history of the play, compared to the book, Lin did a remarkable job of taking the facts, making them a shorter story, and distilling it into a musical form. Not a mini-series, not a web-series, but a full-blown, but only 3-hour, musical that has the ability to motivate and inspire others. To be able to do something like this is more than making stories, it’s a talent and deep-seated ability that few people can harness.

The history of the musical is so very importantly and respectfully done and it doesn’t try to make one person a hero and another the villain. Instead it seeks to tell the story of a group of persons around Alexander Hamilton, and their trials, triumphs and failures around the American Revolution and in a new nation.

Every character is real, they have downfalls and strengths, quirks and weaknesses, attitudes and emotions. They’re solid beings, just as they would have been in a historical sense. Washington is a courageous and noble leader that glued something of the revolution together in a nation, but he was also a slave owner, and he made mistakes in his past. Jefferson is worldly and wealthy, but his affairs and slave ownership raise questions of values. Hamilton, as intelligent and able as he was, picked battles, and had an affair of which he was then cat-fished for. The musical explores their strengths and weaknesses through song, dance and even the cast that was chosen for the show.

As a final act of rebellion and to drive home our understanding of past in the present, the choice casting of only people of color in the musical is a final statement on the complexity of the founding fathers. In the original casting Washington(Christopher Jackson) and Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) are played by African American men, while their characters had been slave owners (and Jefferson had children with his slave Sally Hemmings, who was also his wife’s half-sister). Lin is Puerto-Rican and plays Hamilton and Phillipa Soo who plays Eliza is the grand-daughter of Chinese immigrants.


The list goes on, but the diverse cast is an important note on the changes that the country has made since its inception in 1776. The best part is that it reflects some of the changes that were set in motion by the act of rebellion and revolution. It also shows that there is so much of a need for more diversity in our entertainment and musicals in 2016. Thus, by casting a diverse group of peoples for the show we are seeing where the best person is given the role, and not just casting by race or a “look”, we see a progression in our artistic endeavors as a culture.

It’s a powerful movement forward.

Of you want to read more on the historical phenomenon of Hamilton, check out Frock Flicks and their take on the costumes and symbolism. If you want to see how historians are embracing Hamilton check out Historiann’s piece (her 18th century class at CSU is awesome btw- Rebecca Lee Robinson).