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Tea... a complicated history


In my Tea Season is Year Round blog I illuded to our country's complicated history with tea. With the Independence Day holiday happening next week, I thought it would be appropriate to look at the complexities more in depth.

Many may recall learning of the Boston Tea Party in high school history class. This historical event, where tea was dumbed into the Boston Harbor, is often described as being the "powder keg" that ignited the American Revolution. While this may have been the straw that broke the camels back, this simplification of events glosses over nuances that defined the political climate of the time and minimize the cultural importance of tea.

During our country's infancy tea was consumed widely across the 13 colonies. Afternoon tea was common in cities and throughout the countryside. So much so, that by the 1760's colonists were consuming over 1 million pounds of loose leaf tea a year. This is somewhere around 160-180 million cups of tea for an estimated population of 2 million. Not an insignificant amount considering the challenges of import and distribution at the time. So what happened?

The American Revolution was preceded by a series of taxes levied on the then colonies by Great Britain, leading to the popular phrase "no taxation without representation." The taxes were placed on everyday goods, such as glass, oil, paper . . . and tea. The tea tax began in 1767 with the passage of the Townshend Acts. This made tea less affordable and lead to tea smuggling. Even with the smuggling of tea, it became unattainable for some colonists. Lin-Manuel Miranda expresses the sentiment of the day best in the musical Hamilton, "why should a tiny island across the sea regulate the price of tea?" Things came to a head in 1773 with the Tea Act. The East India Company had 17 million pounds of tea stored in reserve and begun selling this tea to the colonists, making its tea cheaper than the colonial importers and smugglers could, thus creating a monopoly. However the tea tax remained. Later that year members of a grassroots political group called the Sons of Liberty boarded 3 ships sitting in Boston Harbor and poured 340 chests of tea (roughly 92,000 pounds) into the harbor. As a consequence, tea drinking became unpatriotic. Boycotts of tea led to an increase in consumption of other beverages, such as coffee, thus changing the course of our beverage culture.

Happy Independence Day!

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Heiss, Mary Lou; Heiss, Robert .J (2007). "A History of Tea: The Boston Tea Party". The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide. pp. 21–24.

Modianot-Fox, Dina (2007). "Tea’s Time."

Encycolopidia.com. Populations Of Great Britain And America

Labaree, Benjamin (1964). The Boston Tea Party. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 7.

KitchenAid. "Steeped in History: The Rise of Tea in America."

Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. "The Tea Act."

Wikipedia. American Tea Culture.