Regular readers of this blog would be familiar with the furniture, silver and porcelain associated with serving and partaking of tea during the seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, but many may not be aware of the fervor behind the fashionable drink.

China has a long history of cultivating and drinking tea dating back almost 3,000 years. The leaves of Camellia sinensis, a medium-sized evergreen shrub, are harvested and processed in a variety of ways to produce leaf tea.

In 1625, the trader Samuel Purchas, wrote how the Chinese prepared “… the powder of a certaine herbe called chia of which they put as much as a walnut shell may contain, into a dish of Porcelane, and drink it with hot water“.

Traders in the mid-seventeenth-century brought such teas as Bohea, Pekoe and Congo to Britain from the Chinese ports of Canton and Shanghai. The darker teas, Bohea and Pekoe, were considered the best varieties and Congo somewhat less so. Green tea was considered inferior and therefore cheaper. Of the green teas, Hyson (named after the first merchant of the East India Company to import tea into Britain) enjoyed broad popularity. The East India Company received their first shipment of tea (amounting to 143 pounds – 65 kilos) from their agent in Bantam in 1669.

In seventeenth-century North America, traders first introduced tea to the Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam however, it wasn’t initially too well received: “Some tried to serve it like spinach with salt and butter, others ate it on toasted bread”. [i]

Worse was still to befall the colonists.

Meanwhile in England, tea-drinking defined respectability amongst the aristocracy, spurring the importation and manufacture of all manner of tea paraphernalia. Chinese tea wares – essential to the ritual of drinking tea – were simultaneously imported along with tea. However, the cost of Chinese porcelain (figure 1) was colossally expensive, but English porcelain factories like Chelsea (fig.2), Worcester (figure 3), New Hall et al answered to the demand and produced delightful interpretations at a fraction of the price.

Fig. 1. Jean-Etienne Liotard, Still Life: Tea Set, circa 1783.

Fig.2. Chelsea tea service, circa 1755. (Brian Haughton Gallery)

Fig.3. Early Worcester octagonal Red Bull tea bowl, circa 1754. (Leslie Antiques)

Fig. 4. New Hall Teapot, circa 1782-87. (Juno Antiques)

Many forms of tea tables (fig. 5) and tea caddies (fig. 6) also proliferated.

Fig. 5. George II walnut tea table, circa 1740.

Fig. 6. George II burr oak tea caddy, circa 1740-50.

At its introduction, tea was prohibitively expensive to all but the gentility, due largely to the East India Company’s monopoly of the commodity and the Government’s high taxes on its importation.

Fig. 7. Joseph Van Aken, A Tea Party, circa 1720.

Fig. 8. Johann Zoffany, The Garden at Hampton House with Mr. and Mrs. David Garrick taking tea, circa 1762.

As is the world though, tea soon found its way onto the black market, making it affordable for the everyday man (figure 9).

 Fig. 9. William Redmore Bigg, A Cottage Interior: An Old Woman Preparing Tea, circa 1730.

By the 1770s, all foreign tea had to be first imported into London by registered merchants to be levied before distribution to domestic and foreign markets. Several popular means of circumventing taxation were adopted by enterprising individuals: Genuine tea was frequently adulterated by the addition of various domestic tree buds including those of the ash, elder and hawthorn along with innumerable herbs and sheep faeces. Chamomile was an important addition in teas preferred by British women. Great fields of the stuff were grown in the South West of the country and harvested by specialized horse-drawn cutters (fig 10).

Fig. 10. Chamomile cutter along with a set of leather horse boots to help protect the valuable crop.

It was these exports of toxic and adulterated tea – as much as extortionately high taxes – to the North American colony that ultimately resulted in the Sons of Liberty (disguised as Mohawk Indians) boarding three ships in Boston Harbour and throwing 92,000 pounds of tea overboard in 1773.

Smuggling tea into Britain avoided the cripplingly high taxes and accounted for approximately 34% of domestic consumption. The practice flourished to the extent one commentator declared so many people were employed in smuggling that the country’s agriculture was suffering as a consequence.

Fig. 11. Giles Grinagain (pseud.), Loading A Smuggler.

Fig. 12. Thomas Rowlandson, Rigging Out a Smuggler.

The arse eventually fell out of the illegal tea trade in 1784 with the introduction of the Commutation Act, which slashed the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5%. Consequently, many former smugglers, with an intimate understanding of the tea trade, themselves, became bona fide tea merchants.

Jack Plane

[i] Israel, Andrea. Taking Tea. (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987.


About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
This entry was posted in 17th and 18th Century Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Teatime

  1. I had just wondered about you today Mr. Plane, how nice to hear from you!


  2. Gregory Forster says:


    ..always educating and entertaining

    Thank you


  3. TobyC says:

    Same here, I was becoming concerned.


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