American Tea Culture

a-t-cAmericans had been enjoying the ritual of sharing a cup of tea since even before America was in existence. The American Tea culture first arrived in this New World with the Dutch. The Dutch East India Company was in the business of importing tea even before the English were aware of its existence. By the late 1630’s tea was becoming quite fashionable in the Dutch court. As a result, by the end of the 1650’s, tea culture was avidly being experienced in New Amsterdam, the future New York. By the time the British occupied the city, and renamed it New York, the fashion of culture of tea was firmly ensconced.

The story of tea in the Americas begins with the Dutch colony in the New World. Here the ladies of New Amsterdam would attempt to emulate the aristocracy of the mother land and re-created a new colony version of the stately service of tea, complete with the best silver strainers, the finest porcelain cups and pots, and exquisite wooden tea caddies. By 1690, in Boston, Benjamin Harris had taken out a license to sell tea to the public, quickly followed by Zabdiel Boylston in 1712.

While tea was purchased throughout the colonies, there was a variety of ways in which it was prepared and enjoyed. In Salem, for example, the leaves were boiled to create a bitter brew. They were then served as a vegetable side dish garnished with butter. Most, however, appear to have served it as an infusion. By the time of the American Revolution, tea was reportedly drunk everywhere from the backwoods to the center of sprawling cities.

atc2Tea grew to be immensely popular in the colonies, even once the British government began to increase the taxes on teas and luxury goods. Many colonists avoided paying the taxes by simply supporting the market in smuggled tea from Holland. Thomas Hancock, the uncle of the famous Patriot John Hancock, made quite a handsome living smuggling tea and selling it to the British navy and army personnel stationed in the Colony. The colonists, perturbed at having to pay exorbitant taxes to offset the British debt decided to become more militant. By 1773 patriots rebelled against the British Taxation Acts with the famous Boston Tea Party. However, similar events occurred in New York, Philadelphia, Greenwich and Charleston. The end result, besides the American Revolution, was that tea had fallen out of favor for a while. The likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson declared: “we have renounced tea”.

For a while, settlers were encouraged to find substitutes for tea such as herbal infusion. One such infusion was Labrador Tea; however it was not really considered an equal to tea and was actually toxic in large doses. The newspapers of the day suggested that Peppermint or sage and even dandelion could pass as a replacement for tea. Women were asked to take solemn vows to abstain from the evils of tea. As often is the case, memories soon fail and over time the convictions of abstinence started to wane. By 1833 tea was again written about in the popular media of the time. Women were being instructed in the proper ways to prepare tea. In early cookery books, instructions were given to steep green tea with boiling water for ten to fifteen minutes. By our modern standards, that must have been a mighty bitter brew. We now understand that green tea is too delicate to stand a scalding by boiling water and a steep that long would have been enough to make the tea incredibly bitter. But then, the green tea that was available to them then had to endure a very long sea voyage and was very stale to start off with.

As tea re-entered the collective conscience in the newly created United States of America, Benjamin Franklin proposed that an American Tea Ceremony should be created. This was in a letter to Congress in 1779. In it he wrote about a special Japanese Tea Ceremony in which tea is celebrated and fixed in ancient custom. He questioned whether Americans might soon develop their own such traditions. Certainly many early culinary works do reflect on the fact that tea was ensconced in the culture of the time. Diaries and journals of socialites do mention the service of tea in their events.

Two important facts have helped to stimulate the resurgence of tea consumption in America. First was the creation of iced tea, and second was the invention of the tea bag. Both of these events have their own legends that have developed to identify the origins of their stories. Legend has it that the first time Iced tea was served was at the 1904 St Louis Fair. As it was incredibly warm, people were not interested in drinking hot tea, so Richard Blechynden apparently put ice in the tea he was serving. People allegedly found this to be very refreshing and as they kept coming back for more, according to the story, a new drink was invented.

However, there are many references to iced tea being served long before this time. Many early culinary guides mention adding ice and sugar to tea to create a more refreshing drink, especially in the south. Many of these date to before the Civil War. Although it was not as common in other areas, iced tea was certainly very well-known long before Blechynden got credit for allegedly inventing it. Nearly ninety percent of the tea consumed in the U.S. today is served iced. The average American drinks nearly 6.5 gallons of iced tea per year.

With respect to the story of the invention of the tea bag, in 1908, New York tea importer, Thomas Sullivan, was trying to facilitate selling tea to potential customers, so he sent the samples in small silk bags. The customers had delighted in the convenience of the bags, as they thought that they were to steep the tea in them. When they complained that the subsequent orders did not have the tea placed in the silk bags, Sullivan realized that they wanted the convenience of the bags. Early bags were also made using gauze. Sullivan was not the first to sell tea in bags. The first patent was issued to A.V. Smith on London in 1896. It was not until 1935 that Tetley began manufacturing tea into bags. By 1968 only three percent of tea was sold in bags.

In recent years there has been a revival of interest in fine teas in America, mainly due to the lifting of China’s ban on exports to America in 1971. Since the 1920s Americans could not get Chinese tea and most Indian teas were sold to a different market. The teas they did get were specifically blended for iced tea. With China’s ban lifted, people in the United States begun to experiment with green, white, oolong, and black teas, and tisanes (herbal teas). American tea consumers have become increasingly interested in the origins of their tea as the market for global sources for tea has grown.

Another important factor is the history of immigration to America. Immigration is a demographic phenomenon that has been a major source of population growth and cultural change throughout much of the country’s history. Each immigrant group brings with them their own cultural traditions. This includes a cultural connection with tea. In 2006, the United States accepted more legal immigrants as permanent residents than all other countries combined. With this history as background, the American Tea Ceremony was born utilizing teas grown all over the world reflecting the melting pot of ethnicity and the diverse cultures of which the nation’s population is composed.

The American Tea Masters Association has created a tribute to the American Tea Culture by developing a ceremony to pay homage to it. It harkens to a simpler time, when one would sit together as a family and share their experiences of the day. When one slows down to pay attention to the small details in life, one can actually listen and share in life’s moments. Children can delight to watch the tea infuse into a swirl of golden and coppery waves and truly appreciate the moment together with loved ones. A video of the American Tea Ceremony can be found on the association’s web site at American Tea Ceremony. There is something magical about pouring hot water over the dry tea leaves and watching the leaves unfurl and develop to their potential, in a swirl of colored tones. It brings a whole new sensory approach to drinking tea.

1 Griffiths, John Tea: a history of the drink that changed the world. London: Carlton Publishing Group, 2011; pp. 16, 18, 63, 106

The History of Tea. South Yorkshire, England : Pen & Sword Books, 2009: pp 27 – 36

MacFarlane, Alan and Iris MacFarlane The Empire of Tea: the remarkable history of the plant that took over the world. New York: The Overlook Press, 2009:pp 74, 84, 190

Victor H Mair and Erling Hoh

The true history of tea.  New York:  Thames and Hudson, 2009; pp 166-69, 198, 199

Pratt, James Norwood Tea Lover’s Treasury. Santa Rosa California : Cole Group, 1982, pp.32, 53

2  Pratt, James Norwood Tea Lover’s Treasury. Santa Rosa California : Cole Group, 1982, pp 57-72 The taxes on tea were created to help pay for the French Indian War and the colonies.

3  Victor H Mair and Erling Hoh

The true history of tea.  New York:  Thames and Hudson, 2009; pp 201

 Griffiths, John Tea: a history of the drink that changed the world. London: Carlton Publishing Group, 2011; pp. 78-79

Hale, Sarah Josepha Buell Early American Cookery: the Good Housekeeper. Mineola New York, 1841, pp 112  The first edition of this cookery book appeared in Boston in 1839.  Sarah Josepha Hale was an editor of the Ladies Magazine in 1827 – 36 and then Godey’s magazine 1837 – 1877

Moodie, Susanna Roughing it in the Bush Ottawa:  Carleton University Press, 1999 pp 375 – 377


5  Pratt, James Norwood Tea Lover’s Treasury. Santa Rosa California : Cole Group, 1982, pp 93 – 94 also Victor H Mair and Erling Hoh

The True History of Tea.  New York:  Thames and Hudson, 2009; pp 197, 208, 252



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