Keep Calm and Put the Kettle On

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Keep Calm and Put the Kettle On:

An Analysis of the Impact of Tea on British Culture during the Industrial Revolution

Michelle Crane

Grand Prairie High School

Grand Prairie, TX
2010 NEH Seminar for School Teachers

Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in Britain

From the moment we are born, food plays a defining role in our lives. Hunger is our most basic human need, and our drive to soothe that need can and will surpass all others. As we grow, however, food becomes an expression of our individuality – our preferences, idiosyncrasies, culture, religion, and personalities are all reflected in the foods we choose to eat. Even our opinions about geopolitics, economics, social justice and environmental policy make an appearance on our plates. Foods can also reflect a national identity – a uniting force that expresses where you belong in the world. Every culture has foods, which serve to define it, some context through which we can begin to understand the overwhelming complexities of the collision of soil, climate, ecosystem and culture. Sometimes these choices can be anachronistic, such as Walker’s choice of Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding to represent the flavor of the UK in their World Cup series of chips (perhaps Chicken Tikka Masala would be a better fit for modern Britain), and sometimes they can be too simplistic (Garlic Baguette for France?), but sometimes they are spot on – the flavor of America is definitely cheeseburger. According to Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, the American taste for cheeseburgers has shaped our environment, culture, economic system, and political scene unlike any other food we eat. To find a British counterpart – one food that has defined every aspect of British society, we need to look no further than the electric teakettle sitting on my desk. For a product that was unheard of in Britain before the 1600’s, tea has become such a ubiquitous expression of British culture and society, that it is almost impossible to imagine Britain without tea. So much so, that I wonder if Walker’s considered a tea-flavored chip before settling upon the roast beef.

“If you want to change the world, change the food on your plate.” (Oliver, 2010) If Jamie Oliver had lived during the Industrial Revolution he might have changed that last bit to “change the drink in your cup.” The rising demand for tea and sugar during the 17th and 18th century, more than any other products, drastically changed the face of the planet. During the Industrial Revolution, rising consumption of many goods such as silk and cotton, as well as the demand for exotic and luxury goods such as porcelain, definitely played a major role in Britain’s economic interactions in the world. The demand for these goods sent British merchants to all corners of the world, and the desire to obtain these goods cheaply drove the desire of the British government to create colonies. Tea and sugar were the products, which eventually surpassed all others because unlike silk, more people could afford them, and unlike porcelain Britain simply could not produce either of them at home. By the time of Victoria’s reign, tea and sugar were imported in higher quantities than any other goods, and by the end of the Victorian era, they had radically altered the economic structure in China, reshaped the agricultural landscape of India, and reconfigured the political, economic, social and cultural structure of Britain’s North American and West Indian colonies. This is one of the stories of the Industrial Revolution. The increase in technological innovation, the creation of a new consumer culture, and the introduction of exotic new products also played key roles in shaping England’s domestic culture. While sugar played an integral part in shaping the American colonies, sweeteners of various types had been available throughout Europe for centuries, particularly honey. Tea, on the other hand, represented an entirely new product in Britain, introduced just prior to the advent of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Tea was the first luxury product of its day to move into the cabinets of people from all social classes, and its growing popularity drove a trade, which changed the British themselves as much as the British changed the world. While the trade in tea was hardly the sole stimulus, it played a vital role in shaping the new industrial Britain - fueling and stimulating a rapidly expanding workforce, challenging attitudes about social classes, introducing new cultural practices, and providing some of the revenue to pay for it all.

The precise date of tea’s first appearance in Britain is uncertain. Most likely, Dutch or Portuguese traders first introduced it – both countries had already acquired a taste for tea by the mid-17th c. What is known is that the first recorded public sale of tea was in 1657 by Thomas Garway. Introduced through the already popular coffee houses, tea rapidly became popular with the coffee house crowd, even though the tea traded in the early days was probably of a fairly poor quality. In addition, the tax on tea at this time was on the brewed product. It was fairly common for the coffee house to brew large batches of it at once – when the tax assessors came, and then reheat the liquid tea as it was ordered. Brewing and reheating tea in this way can make the final product fairly bitter, which may be part of the reason people began adding sugar to their tea. This is just one of the many ways the British began altering tea to suit their own tastes.

The major stimulus for the introduction of tea, and ultimately one of the seeds of empire, came when Charles II married Catherine de Braganza. Catherine was the daughter of King Juan of Portugal – a country with many trading privileges throughout Asia. She landed in England with all the ingredients needed for Britain to stimulate its long-standing relationship with the world’s second most popular drink. While the bulk of her dowry initially lay in the 500,000 pounds she brought with her (most of it as goods for trade – sugar and spices), she also brought land titles in Bombay and trading rights in Brazil and the East Indies. These two bequests provided England with the foothold it needed not only to begin an enormous trade in sugar, but also to eventually colonize India with the intention of creating its own tea plantations after the growing trade with China became problematic. Of more immediate importance, however, Catherine brought her own chest of tea and a love for the drink.

Two of the hallmarks of the Industrial Revolution were a love of novelty and a desire by the middle class to emulate the upper classes. Thomas Garway satisfied the former when he first began selling tea, and Catherine sparked the latter with her apparent endorsement of this exotic beverage. Following her example, many members of the upper class began purchasing tea – and its associated implements -- in an attempt to prove their social standing. Not only drinking tea, but how you drank it, and in what fashion you consumed it, were signals of your high rank in society and your knowledge of social standards. “In a class conscious yet mobile society… tea became an important mechanism for inclusion and exclusion.” (Macfarlane, 2003) People who drank tea, people who knew the rituals, and who had the proper tea sets were acceptable; people, who did not, did not belong. “Tea drinking was like other rituals in providing a convention to set up visible public definitions… (it) acted as a marker of ranks” (Berg, 2005). Wedgwood and other manufacturers of china sets even began to use this as a major selling point for their products. Wedgwood’s Queen’s ware was specifically marketed to appeal to customers who wanted to feel as though they belonged in the Queen’s circles – or at least at her tea table.

In modern society, elite women who wish to highlight their status and importance are often referred to as “ladies who lunch”. During the Industrial Revolution, these women would have been referred to as “ladies who take tea.” Thomas Twining began selling tea in his teashop specifically to capture the female market. Women were not allowed inside the coffee houses, so they had to partake of their beverages and recreation within the confines of their own homes. Twining’s teashop allowed women to purchase the leaves and prepare their own tea. Once British women had access to tea, they quickly made it a central part of their own social rituals. While their husbands gathered at the coffee houses to discuss politics and the economy, this growing class of upwardly mobile women would gather in each other’s homes to drink tea and gossip. “Tea drinking played the part of a ritual of visiting” (Berg, 2005), providing an occasion for women to socialize. Soon after, tea gardens began to appear – places where unescorted women could gather with their friends for an afternoon’s socializing. Eventually, the idea of drinking tea and female socializing became so intertwined that it is easy to forget that tea was originally drunk in the male-dominated world of the coffee houses.

The major boost tea needed to become the prevalent drink throughout Britain, rather than just a symbol of high society and socialization, was the Industrial Revolution itself. As workers moved from farm to factory, they were exposed to an entirely new form of work – a new discipline as the Hammonds called it in The Town Laborer. The faster pace and the imminent danger faced by increased mechanization made beer drinking problematic. “Beer…was no use in conjunction with the fine motor skills required in the industrialized sections of Britain’s economy” (Rose, 2009). Beer was also expensive, and remained so throughout the period. Tea, on the other hand, provided workers with a gentle caffeine boost – keeping them alert throughout an often-monotonous workday by helping to assure they were alert enough to avoid the dangers of working with machines. “Tea did not gently dull the mind but sharpened it…” (Standage, 2006). While the high taxes on tea made the drink too expensive for the lower classes to afford initially, by 1744 the price had dropped enough to make it available. By1800, what had started out as an affordable luxury, had turned into a vital necessity.

As large numbers of people began to move to the cities in order to find work, the diet of the British lower classes began to change. Farmers are able to produce their own food – fruits, vegetables, various proteins from their livestock, and grains. While a farmer’s diet was susceptible to changes in the climate, he was usually able to produce enough food to feed himself and his family. A factory worker, however, put his fate and his stomach entirely in the hands of others. Even if he worked as hard as he could, he was forever at the mercy of not only nature and the farmers, but also the markets and transportation. Without the ability to supplement his diet with food produced at home, he could only hope that he earned enough to pay market costs for food. Even then, during the early days of the Industrial Revolution, fresh food was often hard to come by. Bad roads and long distances from farm to market meant that much of the food reached the market already in the early stages of spoilage. The end result was that the typical city dweller subsisted almost entirely upon a diet of bread, potatoes, and tea. The tea itself provided a dose of stimulation, but the milk and sugar which became staple additions to tea provided small amounts of calcium and protein, along with a rather large dose of calories. “So while tea became a social necessity for the middle classes, it literally became a lifesaver for many working-class families…” (Macfarlane, 2003)

As the consumption of tea by the workers increased, factory owners found that tea could also provide a way to recharge workers during the day. Since lunch breaks were still rather uncommon at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, workers often went 10 to 12 hours without eating. By providing a tea break during the day, owners and managers could push workers into working longer hours while still maintaining productivity. “Fortified by the caffeine and the sugar, relaxed and reinvigorated by the drink and the exchange of banter…the workers could return to the relentless task and do things that would have been beyond endurance without the tea break.” (Macfarlane, 2003) By including a break, which allowed men to socialize and provided them with stimulation, the men could return to their monotonous tasks and feel as though they could continue on until the end of their shift. Upon returning home, it was typical for them to imbibe again, providing enough fortification and sustenance to hang on until dinnertime. Thus, with their morning tea, they were able to maintain their strength and endurance throughout an otherwise grueling day.

Once tea began to trickle down into the lower classes, there was a rather predictable backlash from the wealthy. Tea was their beverage – a sign of high society and sociability. Tea was still expensive enough that many laborers purchased the beverage at the expense of other foods, which might have provided more nourishment. “Tea, sugar, and strong liquors, can come only from pinched bellies…” (Young, 1780) There were even several reports published of the damaging effects of drinking tea. Samuel Johnson even published a report in The Literary Magazine stating that “…tea is a liquor not proper for the lower classes of the people…It’s proper use is to amuse the idle, and relax the studious…” (Macfarlane, 2003) Nevertheless, the gentle buzz and massive campaigns to endorse the drink by the East India Company made tea’s popularity with the lower classes unstoppable. In response, the wealthy found other ways to keep tea’s role as a status symbol. They created an entirely new meal around the drink.

The first person credited with keeping “high tea” was the 7th Duchess of Bedford. The story goes that she had a very difficult time waiting for society’s late night dinners and began serving tea and sandwiches in the late afternoon. Just as before with Catherine de Braganza, the other members of upper society embraced this new tradition with alacrity. High tea became the perfect excuse and the perfect occasion to entertain, gossip, and display wealth. Tea “…provided the rich with an opportunity to display their magnificence in the matter of tea pots, cups, and so on…” (Berg, 2005). Increasingly, specialized dishes were created for specific courses within the meal – the ability to afford such specialized equipment illustrated one’s wealth. Rules of behavior, governing everything from how the tea was prepared to how to hold a teacup, ensured the highest level of civility – an important factor considering that a tea set often cost more than most of the furniture in the house. Rather than creating an institution, which isolated the rich from those who dared to reach higher in society, the middle classes followed suit by adopting “…the ritual sociability and the material equipment of the tea table into their canons of respectability” (Berg, 2005). “Middling-class households made the tea equipage and porcelain tea ware their central luxury expenditures” (Berg, 2005). Often, the tea set would cost more than the table upon which it was served. Just as the working class would do without necessities in order to buy tea, the middle class would make sacrifices in other areas in order to buy tea china.

The necessity of purchasing specialized equipment, with which to serve this exotic beverage, since tin cups just would not do for such an expensive item, had a direct impact on global trade and eventually Britain’s industries at home. In the early 1700’s, trade with China revolved around spices, silks, and other exotic items. As tea gained in popularity, it increasingly became a larger part of the shipments home. Since tea is such a light product, ships returning to England needed heavy items to act as ballast. The blue and white porcelain, for which China is still famous, provided the perfect balance. Chinese porcelain at the time was vastly superior to the pottery produced in England, and eventually became sought after as the preferred serving ware for tea. In time, however, British industry responded by copying China’s superior techniques and created a porcelain that more closely fitted the English aesthetic ideal. Wedgwood in particular shaped a major industry around his ability to determine and mold what the English consumers wanted on their tables. His company and dozens of others grew up around Stoke-on-Trent, an area of England, which provided all of the materials needed for a porcelain industry. English pottery surpassed China’s in quality and aesthetics by the end of the 1700’s and helped to provide funding for canals, railroads and other industries throughout central England. Many of these companies, such as Wedgwood and Royal Doulton, still represent some of the finest porcelain companies in the world. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, their factories are now all located in China.

While the dishes provided a serious economic stimulus, the money earned by the trade or manufacture of porcelain was nothing compared to the money earned from the trade in tea. Tea provided a substantial portion of the East India Company’s profit. This company’s net worth made it one of the largest multi-national organizations the world has ever seen. Its wealth and power allowed the company to influence everything from domestic politics, taxation and home markets to international trade routes and even helped it establish colonies in India. Tea also filled the pockets of London merchants who were willing to invest their incomes at home. “The early iron industry of South Wales, for example, was largely the creation of tea dealers and other traders of London and Bristol.” (Ashton, 1997)

Most importantly, however, was the amount of money the government itself earned from the trade in tea. “Nearly one in every ten pounds sterling collected by the government came from the import and sale of tea” (Rose, 2009), This fact, more than any other, lay behind the drastic fluctuations in tea taxation throughout the period. Always unpopular, the taxes on tea kept filling the coffers of the British government and provided a large source of revenue through which England funded many of its conquests. But the taxes also made tea an ideal target for smuggling. At the height of the tea smuggling days, a smuggler might bring in 4000 gallons of rum or brandy, while bringing in ten times that amount of tea. By the 1780’s, the amount of illegal imported tea had surpassed that of legal exports. According to Richard Twining, local merchants were competing heavily with smugglers and “…the smuggler has become so formidable a rival, that upon the most moderate computation, they shared the tea-trade equally between them…” (Twining, 1784). When William Pitt the Younger slashed the tax on tea in 1784, he effectively removed all of the incentives for smuggling. What the government lost in revenue from the higher taxes, it was able to regain within ten years by the increased legal trade.

The final major impact of tea in industrial Britain was upon the tea, itself. Throughout most of tea’s history and its geographical range, the most popular variety has been green tea. While China also produced black tea for centuries, most Chinese people drink green tea on a daily basis. The British, however, quickly gained a taste for black tea for two very different reasons. The first reason was that “there was a growing taste for black tea in England, due in no small part to a growing glut of sugar coming out of the West Indies and Caribbean. Black tea takes sugar, green tea does not” (Rose, 2009). The British have a reputation for having a bit of a sweet tooth, and black tea provided an opportunity to satisfy it. It also helped stimulate a huge trade in sugar, which ultimately shaped the culture and economy of the western hemisphere. The other reason black tea became more popular, however, has to do with industry.

Tea is a processed product. The process from fresh leaf to brewed cup is a highly involved one and was perfected over hundreds of years. This process was tightly guarded by the Chinese and resulted in tea’s high price on the market. Add the taxes upon tea’s arrival in Britain and the price of tea makes it ideal for adulteration. Adulteration of food products became increasingly popular throughout the Industrial Revolution as food prices fluctuated drastically. Tea was often dried and resold – a rather harmless, if dishonest practice. Black tea was often mixed with sloe, birch, ash or elder bark to stretch small amounts further. Green tea, on the other hand, was treated with far more hazardous materials. When the East India Company planned to obtain control of the tea trade from start to finish, the Company sent a spy to China to learn the secrets of the tea making processes. One of Robert Fortune’s most important discoveries was that the Chinese were mixing iron ferro cyanide and calcium sulfate dehydrate into the tealeaves while the British desired green tea that was really green. “Fortune estimated there was more than half a pound of plaster and cyanide included in every hundred pounds of tea consumed” (Rose, 2009). In short, the British were slowly being poisoned by their consumption of green tea. Once Fortune reported his findings back home, black tea secured its position as the favorite tea among the British.

Tea’s impact on industrialization, the British economy, and British culture cannot be underestimated. But the impact tea may have had on British society is one that has not been well studied. As factory workers crowded into cities and tenements without adequate sanitation or clean water, they were susceptible to a myriad of diseases. Beer held many of these diseases at bay because the water is heated during the brewing process and alcohol can kill many microorganisms. As tea replaced beer as Britain’s primary drink, tea may have also provided even more protection. Tea contains high levels of tannic acid. Tannic acids in tea “…can kill the bacteria that cause cholera, typhoid, and dysentery” (Standage, 2006.) Even if the water was not brought to a full boil when brewing tea, “…the natural antibacterial properties of tea…reduced the prevalence of waterborne disease.” (Standage, 2006) These benefits proved useful not just at home, but also abroad as British soldiers advanced through the tropics on their way to spread the empire. It is possible that the custom of drinking tea may have protected many of those soldiers from some tropical diseases they encountered during their conquests.

From a plant, which originated in the Himalayas to vast plantations across the tropics, tea has truly become a global product. It has played a role in shaping the economies and cultures of each country into which it was introduced. This can certainly be seen across the American South with its ubiquitous iced tea. This is probably a result of the thousands of Irish and Scottish immigrants who brought their love of tea with them across the Atlantic, but finding the South too hot to tolerate hot drinks, switched to a cold version. However, tea’s greatest impact in the western hemisphere was undoubtedly upon the British. Had tea arrived during a different stage of Britain’s development, the results may have been different. Tea’s arrival coincided with a period of major upheaval in British society, and tea definitely played a starring role in shaping what would become modern Britain. Its affects are still seen today. High tea still represents the pinochle of society. Many of the priciest department stores and restaurants in London still offer high tea every day. But tea is also still an everyman’s drink. Over a dozen of London’s Cab Shelters still offer a cuppa and a cheap meal to London’s taxi drivers. And the electric teakettles found on every college student’s desk insure that tea will still be a hallmark of British society long into the future.


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