Rappaport@history.ucsb.edu NAVSA, Victoria, British Columbia
October 10-14th, 2007
Please do not cite or quote without permission of the author
[This is a draft chapter from my forthcoming book on the globalization of Indian tea. For those of you who have the time and are interested, it might be helpful to read my chapter on adulteration and Chinese tea in Frank Trentmann, ed. The Making of the Consumer: Knowledge, Power and Identity in the Modern World. I will bring the chapter’s images with me to the conference. Thanks in advance for reading this long draft and I look forward to seeing you all in Victoria~Erika]
In 1882 the directors of the Assam Company revealed to their shareholders that the Indian tea trade was moving in a new direction. During the past year, the colony’s planters had formed a syndicate “to open direct markets other than in England,” specifically in the Colonies and America.1 It had been almost a half century since the Assam Company had taken over the East India Company’s few struggling plantations. Since the 1830s, dozens of others had conquered vast new lands for tea planting in both Northern and Southern India, and more recently in Ceylon, but labor shortages, a lack of knowledge, local resistance and the booms and busts of an unstable colonial economy meant that it was only in the 1880s that India ousted China from the British teapot.2 Yet almost as soon as the industry stabilized overproduction brought lower prices and profits. Planters, importers, and retailers encouraged Britons to drink more of their “national beverage.” They were not satisfied, however, with peddling their wares only in the British Isles. In the 1880s the tea trade also embarked on a new kind of global marketing campaign that had few parallels.3
The tea syndicate was one of several selling schemes that South Asia’s planters launched during the fin-de-siècle. This chapter examines primarily those inspired and directed by Ceylon’s planters and the Indian Tea Association, an organization of tea producers that in one form or another advertised Indian teas on nearly every continent throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries.4 Their efforts often failed. Nevertheless, these early campaigns allow us to see how imperial rivalries and ideologies contributed to the formation of a transnational business community. Late-Victorian colonial planters, politicians and journalists conceived of the world as essentially a single, albeit segmented, market and thought of consumers not as individuals but as national aggregates. The tea trade fashioned consumers and markets in countless business meetings, letters, reports, trade journals and the colonial press. Though tea was understood as a “private” commodity, South Asia’s planters first approached retailers and consumers in public, at exhibitions and lectures, in grocers and tea shops, and at bazaars and festivals.5
In the last decades of the 19th century, then, colonial governments and business communities reached beyond the European Metropole and within “native” societies to create global markets, consumers and business communities. Multi-national corporations were also becoming crucial players in the creation of the global economy in these years, but this chapter emphasizes a slightly different arrangement. It highlights alliances formed between planters, colonial governments, business elites, local retailers, and a budding group of publicity experts. These authorities were often journalists or retired planters, who had earned their expertise managing tea gardens or writing about colonial economics. They traveled the world and set up offices from which they initiated intense campaigns to teach people to enjoy this British-grown good.
Globalization did not entirely absorb the local into a single homogenous world culture.6 Yet it was the late-Victorians who first began to imagine this process in a positive light and to act upon a vision of all people as potential consumers and all places as latent markets. Boasting the benefits of South Asia’s teas, businessmen developed a missionary-like belief that despite the world’s diversity it had the potential to like and want the same things.7 This was not a democratizing or equalizing notion for as planters became salesman they conceived of the creation of markets as akin to the process of colonization. They explored unknown territories, sought to gain local knowledge, and to civilize or improve the natives. Especially when discussing colonial consumers, planters impregnated the rhetoric and methods of conquest into the sphere of market research and advertising.8 These planters also used consumption to justify imperialism. For example, they often countered charges that they were indulging in horrific labor practices by suggesting that India’s impoverished populace would be saved by drinking tea.9 Empire thus structured the methodologies of colonial business culture and by the twenties and thirties many agencies argued that consumerism was a new kind of imperial citizenship.10 Empire and race sold commodities to British consumers.11 Such images were, I argue, one aspect of a broader process in which competition between and within empires shaped an emergent global consumer culture.12
The imperialistic aspects of globalization have been most often associated with the United States in the era after World War II. In her recent book on the Americanization of Europe, Victoria de Grazia argued that though America’s world hegemony increased dramatically after the war, the essential features of it’s “Market Empire” were built in early 20th century Europe. This empire was made up of a diverse set of ideas, individuals, and institutions such as the Rotary Club, cinema, chain and department stores. It was political and pleasurable, part of the everyday and the spectacular. The businessmen and statesmen who created this empire believed that the consumption of goods and services benefited producers and consumers. They responded to local knowledge and cultures, but essentially assumed that “other nations” had only limited sovereignty over their public space.”13 As de Grazia implied, American consumer culture was not entirely the product of Americans. Here I want to illuminate the British imperial contribution to both America’s consumer culture and to its expansive qualities. Beginning in the 1880s a British Market Empire developed in concert and competition with this American version. It reached out in many directions but was especially directed at conquering, or one might say, constituting, North American and South Asian consumers.14
London was one core of the British market empire, but so too were Calcutta, Columbo and St. Louis, Missouri. Following South Asia’s tea thus reinforces Thomas Metcalf and Sugata Bose’s recent argument that South Asia was a cultural, economic and political center which united the Indian Ocean arena in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.15 Yet thinking in terms of core and peripheries does not go far enough to help us understand the ways in which the business and cultures of tea traveled within and beyond the formal boundaries of nations and empires. It is better to think of this market empire as a series of different networks or global flows. Cotton, sugar, cocoa, coffee, porcelains, fashions and books traveled along avenues, which at times merged but also could also go their own ways. Following particular commodities thus reveals the varied paths that created mass consumption and production, and the parameters of distinctive though interconnected empires.16 Frederick Cooper recently commented that historians need to disentangle the differences between “long-distance” and “global,” recognize the limits to a global framework, and avoid characterizing globalization as a unitary or inevitable process.17 Nevertheless, I argue here that by focusing on the commercial culture of a single commodity we can better see the Victorian contribution to today’s global world and thereby “decenter” this Empire.18 We can distill what areas of the world the Victorians emphasized and ignored and how they privileged certain consumers while denigrating others.
Colonial commodities were among the most pervasive and everyday expressions of the imperial project in Britain. As Piya Chatterjee put it in her ethnography of female plantation labor in India, tea drinking illuminated the connectedness between Britain and its colonial project in which the “desire to taste otherness” fueled colonial expansion. “[T]eatime in the parlor and garden,” she argues, “became the living metaphors of empire and the nation making it enabled.”19 The commonplace nature of such commodities made them comprehensible metaphors of the complex political, economic and cultural forces that define imperialism. In a wholesale rejection of this view, Bernard Porter asserted that consumers are usually “ignorant of the sources of their foodstuffs” even when their colonial origin is clearly printed on the label.20 This debate is not just about empire for it also carries with it unexplored and long-standing attitudes about the significance of commodities and consumption. What both positions have yet to acknowledge is that in the nineteenth century industrialization and globalization disconnected production and consumption and created consumers’ and retailers’ ignorance about objects. Scholars need to explore this process and the ways in which consumers and others responded to their literal and figurative distance from the means of production.21 Moreover, the debate on the significance of imperial commodities would be enriched by considering this question within a broader global political economy and culture. Imperial consumer culture was often produced and sold in seemingly unlikely places such as a grocer’s shop in Topeka, Kansas.
“All the world is intent on supplying all the rest with tea.” The mid-Victorians were especially excited by tea, not only as a drink but also as a crop and an investment. During this period, growers dreamed of a good with almost limitless possibilities. They assumed that a taste for the beverage was essentially natural, easy to cultivate and increase. Certainly in the 1860s, the market was yet to be sated. Journals such as The Grocer frequently argued that the British could take more tea, but so too could “America, The Continent of Europe, and our Colonies.”22 Supply had not yet satisfied demand so that even in 1881 when Samuel Baildon published his well known tract on the “The Origin and Future Prospects of Tea in India,” he could confidently write that “There is land in India sufficient not only to supply the requirements of the United Kingdom, but the wants of the world.”23 Of course, tastes were not natural and tea cultivation was actually quite difficult, but such exuberance was endemic in the mid-Victorian tea trade, despite the fact that tea mania had led to a crash in India in the early 1860s.
Growers and investors in warm climates across the globe enthusiastically and perhaps foolishly planted tea in Southern Africa, South America, the Caucuses, Azores, Fiji and even Coastal California.24 As early as 1866, when writing about Brazilian tea, the Grocer quipped: “All the world is intent on supplying all the rest with tea.”25 Enterprising cultivators toiled for decades to turn Brazil into a tea-growing nation, while others were certain that North America would soon become a producer.26 The Maharajah of Jahore established plantations in the Malay Peninsula. Articles in popular journals such as the Standard posited that tea would soon flourish in the “hilly countries on the shores of the Mediterranean.”27 In 1864, The Grocer reported that in San Francisco, “nurseries near the Mission Dolores had succeeded in raising several thousands of the tea plant during the last twelve months.” “There can be little doubt,” the journal suggested, “that before long it [tea] will be cultivated hereafter for household purposes at least on every farm in the State.”28 In 1871, the Grocer also mentioned that Japanese tea had been transplanted to Calistoga in the heart of the Napa Valley; and, in 1872 the wealthy and innovative landowner Col. W.W. Hollister introduced 50,000 plants at his ranch in Santa Barbara.29 Of course, today California is hardly known for its tea. However, English grocers, Indian planters, and American businessmen assumed that because the state had a ready-supply of “Celestials” to work in the plantations it would soon be covered with tea gardens.30
Politicians and local elites often initiated these agricultural experiments. The United States’ government, for example, had supported tea’s cultivation and consumption since at least 1832, when it had removed all duties on the commodity. Though they would later return with the Civil War, when debating the issue, Members of Congress apparently were swayed by the argument that tea contributed to “temperance and to the social comforts of the people.”31 In the 1870s, the American Department of Agriculture was interested in establishing a tea culture in the South and the West so it distributed numerous plants to farmers in South Carolina, Georgia and California.32 The New York correspondent for the Colonial Empire and Star of India anticipated that quite soon “hundreds of thousands of plants will be growing in this country,” especially since the introduction of tea cultivation into America was one of the “pet hobbies” of General Le Duc, the Commissioner of Agriculture.33 A Mr. Jackson, a “Scotch gentlemen now settled in America” and former manager for the Scottish Assam Company,” had evidently convinced Le Duc that he should encourage a U.S. tea culture.34 Thus, North America’s tea industry was partly a cosmopolitan enterprise. Labor costs were of course expensive in the U.S. but experts imagined that American ingenuity might solve this problem and hypothesized that “inventive” Americans might “by the use of machinery” make the industry pay.35
Though they hardly expected to sell “American tea” to British consumers, American politicians and planters had faith in the domestic market. Per capita tea consumption of tea in the U.S. was quite small compared to Britain but it had grown dramatically at mid-century.36 The tea trade argued that Americans were natural consumers whose tastes had simply veered off course since the Revolution. Both planters and politicians obsessively wanted to recapture this “lost” market. They surmised that flavor not price or politics was the real problem, supposing that Americans drank an unsavory brew of cheap tea steeped too long in “unsuitable water.”37 The industry argued that if the market were not flooded with low quality adulterated teas and if they could teach Americans how to properly brew the beverage consumption would rise. The American Revolution may have turned the nation into coffee drinkers, but most businessmen argued that tea’s association with tyranny was no longer relevant. In fact, the Revolution was more a source of humor than concern. The New York publication, The Merchant’s Magazine and Commercial Review, for example, merely joked about the “tea party…held by His majesty in Boston Harbor…which resulted in the use of gunpowder exclusively for a season.”38 Of course, a U.S. tea industry never materialized but British Victorians could not yet be certain of its failure. They certainly agreed with American tea experts that tea consumption if not tea plants could and should be cultivated in the United States.
India’s planters actually had the most to fear from Ceylon’s amazing new tea culture. After the island became part of the Empire in 1815, it became a coffee-growing colony until disease all but destroyed the industry in the late 1860s and 70s. Some planters were utterly ruined, but others prospered when they turned to tea. Ceylon first exported small amounts in the seventies, but by the early nineties its tea excited a great deal of attention. The amount of tea shipped to London in 1884 was twenty times that sent in 1880 and new gardens kept opening.39 When tea expert Edward Money published a fourth edition of his best-selling textbook in 1883 he felt compelled to add a new chapter on the need to create foreign markets. He was indeed astonished by the recent and very rapid globalization and industrialization of tea production and was especially impressed with Ceylon. Though its teas had only just appeared in London, he regarded Ceylon as already a “formidable competitor.” Money foretold inevitable recession and bitterly asserted “there is too much tea already.”40
Similar anxieties were expressed in many trade publications around this time. In the “Battle of the Teas!,” an article published in an 1894 issue of The Tea Trader, the author worried about the growing competition between the two British industries in India and Ceylon. He was fascinated by how “British enterprise” in India and Ceylon had defeated Chinese “endurance” and ousted its tea from the British market. However, he warned that the struggle has now entered “a new phase.” No longer was the competition for markets a battle between East and West. It is now, the writer exclaimed, a fight between “the British producers themselves.” Using a Darwinian framework which seemed to threaten extinction and necessitate expansion, this journalist warned that it was “no longer in the British market, but in the market of the world, that the struggle must be fought out.”41 The key question, however, was whether or not Ceylon and India would cooperate and promote the global expansion of “British” tea “on a great scale outside of the British Empire?”42
Importers, retailers and consumers often blended India’s and Ceylon’s teas and thought of them as possessing only subtle flavor distinctions. Ceylon’s industry started with the same plants grown in Assam and manufactured them in much the same way as those in India. However, Ceylon established a unique national brand known for its high quality and superiority to that produced in either East Asia or India.43 At an official level these colonies only rarely formed a unified front until institutions such as the Empire Marketing Board and the International Tea Market Expansion board promoted the idea of “Empire teas” in the 1920s and 30s. Indeed, it was the smaller and newer industry in Ceylon that inspired India to publicize its teas around the globe. In a letter to the editor of the Ceylon Observer in 1886, a correspondent captured the tenacious nature of this late-Victorian imperial industry and attributed it to the planter’s “British” heritage. He believed that the combined efforts of “Scotch dourness” and “English pluck” had made Ceylon so determined “not to be beat by anybody or anything.”44
By the mid-eighties, the huge expansion of acreage and the industrialization of tea manufacturing in South Asia and elsewhere brought prices and profits sharply downward.45 The leading expert on the history of India’s tea industry, Sir Percival Griffiths, described the period between 1875 and 1899 as one of “altering prosperity and depression,” in which profits often failed to meet expectations. As in most agricultural industries, good prices led to expanded acreage and encouraged practices, such as course plucking that eventually reduced quality and prices. Planters sought new customers by branding their teas with unique qualities and characterizing them as national resources.46
Imperial Rivalries and the Making of Foreign Markets in the Fin-de-Siècle In 1879 the Home and Colonial Mail urged tea planters who wanted better prices to no longer consider “London alone as their only market.”47 Many in the 1880s argued that it was simply “imperative for new markets to be found for the sale of Indian tea.”48 Ceylon’s agricultural community was of the same opinion. The Ceylon Observer, a newspaper with close ties to planting interests, urged the island’s business community to seek “fresh fields as outlets for our produce.”49 As we have seen, planters had figured out how to grow and manufacture an abundant supply of tea.50 They now realized that they had to learn how to produce tea drinkers. During the next several decades, private individuals, tea companies, the colonial and trade press and producer organizations scoured the world for tea drinkers, energetically gathering knowledge about consumers and developing schemes for creating new needs and wants. Recognizing that tastes varied nationally and regionally, experts nonetheless felt that similar techniques could create new markets, whether they were in Calcutta, Chicago or Liverpool. Scholars have emphasized that pre-existing ideas and local economies and cultures often determine whether a commodity “sells” and condition its use and its associations. However, most growers, retailers and politicians were not so sophisticated. In an era when marketing was in its infancy, approaches were strikingly similar.
A commercialized public sphere of committees, newspapers, lectures, exhibitions, and shops emerged along with a new beverage. These arenas introduced people to a new drink while also providing producers with knowledge about potential consumers and markets. Initially, politicians and planters formed syndicates supported by voluntary and government funds to coordinate publicity. In the 1890s and 1900s voluntarism gave way to professionalism as both Ceylon and India’s governments levied taxes and created a new bureaucracy to create new “foreign” markets. These bodies worked with large private companies and local retailers, often circumventing already established supply networks. They also hired “experts” to give lectures on tea’s history, its health benefits and proper methods of making and enjoying the beverage and to display their colony’s produce at countless international and local exhibitions. Producers believed that to make people into tea drinkers they first had to see and think about the beverage and then taste it. Men and women in Africa, Europe, North America and India thus first sipped South Asian teas at exhibitions, tea shops and at public demonstrations. Though the beverage is often considered one which is consumed in private, most people first encountered this commodity in public.
Planters in virtually every growing region, in Ceylon, India, Java, Formosa, Japan and China, organized themselves into trade associations during the turn-of-the century.51 Such corporate bodies were a central feature of late-Victorian and twentieth century business. In colonial industries, however, they united merchants and politicians in Europe and the colonies and became the backbone of a new kind of global economy. They wielded a strong hand in politics, became involved in questions of labor recruitment and conditions, funded scientific research, and most importantly for this study, they organized and supported global advertising campaigns and related promotional work. These trade associations often joined hands with chambers of commerce and similar groups to defend colonial business interests. Like the companies and Indian agency houses, which they represented, these were British institutions that created a transnational economy. At times they promoted the idea of empire, but at other moments they advocated the products of a particular colony or nation as distinct from Britain and the Empire.52 They thus produced both imperial and national identities as they assembled a cosmopolitan business culture.
The Indian Tea Association, the foremost of these trade organizations, grew from the merger of two late-Victorian groups that had formed to defend Indian tea from competition and from government policies which at times seemed less than helpful.53 The ITA began as the Indian Tea Districts Association, launched in July of 1879 in the Guildhall Tavern, Gresham Street in London. The businessmen who attended this meeting were owners and managers of Northern Indian tea estates who desired to create a “medium of intercommunication” for those interested in the “cultivation of tea in British India.” They hoped unity would reduce costs, improve quality, and enable them to better increase demand for tea. They wanted to “watch the course of legislation in India and England in so far as it affects the tea industry” and to “promote a fuller and freer stream of immigration” to help insure cheap and obedient labor.54 The group was not favored by all in the tea trade.55 Nevertheless, it prospered and in 1894 the Indian Tea Districts Association joined with the Calcutta-based Indian Tea Association, a group conceived at a meeting of tea estate agency houses held at the Bengal Chamber of Commerce in May of 1881. Like the Indian Tea Districts Association, the ITA defended and promoted planters’ interests.56
The men who joined and ran these associations were often born in England or Scotland and had come to India as employees of the East India Company, private companies, or the military. Some served as colonial administrators and were involved in other businesses besides tea planting. For example, the career of Sir Thomas Douglas Forsyth, the first chairman of the Indian Tea Association in London, was typical of the group’s early leaders. Forsyth was born in 1827 in Liverpool and served first as a writer in the EIC. He then became assistant commissioner in the Punjab in 1849, commissioner in Lahore and then Oudh, member of the Legislative Council and Order of Knight Commander of the Star of India in 1874. Forsyth was also appointed special envoy to Burma, and after his retirement he directed several Indian railway companies and helped form the Indian Tea Association, for which he served as chairman from 1879 until 1886.57 Many of the ITA’s executives had careers that, like Forsyth, spanned the Empire. For example, Lord Sydenham of Combe was born in Lincolnshire in 1848, had a long military career before becoming governor of Victoria, Australia and then Bombay. In addition to serving as president of the ITA after World War One, Sydenham was also chairman of the British Empire League from 1915 to 1921, an organization dedicated to advancing imperial business interests.
In India the Tea Association tentatively supported the new Tea Syndicate’s search for “foreign” markets. The syndicate embarked on their quest at the Melbourne Exhibition in 1880 because Australians and New Zealanders already enjoyed their tea, drinking substantially more tea than Britons at that time.58 Their tastes needed to be refashioned, however, for they were only used to that grown in the Celestial Empire. According to a notable tea expert, convincing their “cousin” to change her tastes and “cut out the barbarian,” was akin to courtship. Australia needed to be patiently wooed, for she “is not to be snatched at discretion from the embrace of China; she is both coy and diffident about changing her lover.”59 The colonists’ Britishness made them an important potential market, but merchants did not assume that imperial membership necessarily convinced Australians to drink British-grown tea. Instead of relying on patriotism, the Tea Syndicate scared Australians into drinking South Asian tea. Just as retailers and importers were doing in Britain, the Syndicate taught Australians that tea from China was adulterated and therefore dangerous to their health. They emphasized the purity of Indian teas, which under the watchful eye of a British manager and efficient machinery had no unsanitary elements. This approach was still employing European ideas about the modern West and backward East, but it didn’t directly exhort Australian’s to drink tea simply because it was a British imperial product. Rather South Asia’s ostensible modernity made it the healthy choice. Though Australia’s China tea importers took issue with such “misrepresentations,” their protests did not seem to halt the steady growth of South Asian tea drinking.60
India’s planters were also excited about Canadians, but here too imperial membership did not automatically guide tastes. To be sure, C.F. Amery, who had opened a tea agency for the sale of Indian teas in Montreal, exhorted growers to think more about this market. “The one lesson which I wish to convey to the Indian planter,” Amery wrote in his report on Canada, “is that here is a market large enough to absorb the whole Indian output.” The problem, he explained, was that Canadians primarily liked green teas from both China and Japan. He urged India to learn how to manufacture these varieties and thereby transform their product to meet pre-existing tastes.61 Planters followed this advice, but they also labored to convert tastes.
In the 1880s, planters obsessively fantasized about turning the United States into a vast land of tea drinkers. The Indian Tea Districts Association initiated this discussion in 1880, the same year that the Tea Syndicate sent an “expert” to America to “ascertain the requirements and conditions of that market.”62 At about the same time, U.S. trade journals such as the Anglo-American Grocer and some retailersstarted pushing India’s, and as we will see, Ceylon’s tea.63 In their shareholder’s report published in the summer of 1882, the directors of India’s oldest and most established tea firm, the Assam Company, enthusiastically described the new Tea Syndicate and disclosed that in the previous year Indian tea had begun to be exported directly to “Colonies and America with marked success,” selling for “good prices.” Nevertheless, the directors assured shareholders that such moves were proceeding with caution since “it is necessary to guard against overstocking new markets.”64 The directors were hesitant but they still insisted to shareholders that the prudent course for tea was to plow fields that were far beyond the United Kingdom.
During the 1880s, then, India began to think of Australia, the US and Canada. Some companies began to work in Europe, South America, Central and South Asia as well. Generally, though, India’s producers were divided about whether they should invest in foreign markets. According to one businessman, the larger Indian tea companies had little interest in “speculative movements, such as opening new markets.”65 Their teas were selling very well in Britain and seemed to be gaining ground every year.66 India’s industry was less cohesive and had less influence on its country’s press and politics than the smaller, more desperate producers in Ceylon. Growers were also worried that their product, largely strongly-flavored black teas, was simply unsuitable for many markets. As we have seen, many consumers in the U.S. and Canada enjoyed green teas, and planters realized that it would take some time and a great deal of effort to convert them to prefer India’s black teas.67 Some businessmen were apparently frustrated by India’s inertia and insisted that “American and Canadian markets have to be won,” but “at present nothing has been done for Indian teas beyond an endeavor on the part of a few enterprising men to around a spirit of ‘go’ in members of the industry more generally.”68
Still, throughout the eighties, India’s planters debated whether or not they should follow Ceylon’s example and spend money to open “foreign” markets, especially in the U.S. and Canada.69 In a letter to the editor of a colonial newspaper, for example, “AN OLD FOGEY,” wrote how he was annoyed to find that “on every public occasion, Ceylon tea is always advertised and represented, while Indian tea interests are usually nowhere.”70 Though India was clearly worried and perhaps “annoyed” by Ceylon, some planters, steeped in liberal thought, argued that “the friendly rivalry” would “stimulate rather than weaken the efforts of Indian tea planters.”71 Ceylon’s Planter’s Association had been in existence since 1854 and its business community had organized themselves on much the same lines as that in India. Ceylon’s productions had been on show at earlier exhibitions and individual tea gardens and companies had done some work abroad, but in the 1880s Ceylon felt that its new industry depended upon foreign consumers and global markets.72 It pushed its teas in Britain, the rest of the Empire and other parts of the world, but found the wealthy and novelty-seeking consumers in the United States especially appealing.
In the autumn of 1883, the Ceylon Planters’ Association met in Kandy to discuss how to introduce their teas into “foreign” markets. Their conversation quickly turned to America. One of the planters present, E.R. Stimson, enthusiastically discussed the U.S. and Canada and especially promoted several forthcoming exhibitions planned for New York, Cincinnati and Boston. Stimpson argued that Americans were especially good at putting on these shows because they were a people open to seeing, buying and tasting new things. He then passed around engravings of the forthcoming Boston Exposition, calling attention to its large attractive buildings. In urging that Ceylon should go to Boston, Stimpson explained that “our exhibits will go there and be seen by the sort of people interested in them and they will open the eyes of those people to what can be done in Ceylon.”73 These planters were attracted to what they saw as American dynamism and a seemingly innate desire to consume new things. They were motivated by a powerful fantasy about American business and consumer cultures, and hoped to profit from the spectacle of its economic growth in the late 19th century. This discussion was only one of countless similar debates about where and how to sell Ceylon’s newest tropical product. What is striking about it, however, is the degree to which this community of planters already possessed a sophisticated knowledge about a commercial culture that was literally on the other side of the world.
In the 1880s and 1890s, planters were becoming aware of the size and scope of the U.S. market and experimenting with how to introduce themselves to its consumers. Whereas Britain appeared sated, the United States seemed to be a “country of big things,” including its appetites.74 In one key article written in 1886, imperialism was rewritten as market conquest. The author, Mr. J.L. Shand, a tea planter and one of Ceylon’s leading experts on foreign markets, fervently wrote that “the United States and Canada are two great countries that have to be conquered for tea.” For Shand ethnicity determined tastes. He explained that both the U.S. and Canada “are peopled mainly by Anglo-Saxon and Celtic peoples—by the same people in the main who constitute tea-drinkers in the United Kingdom.” America had turned away from tea not because of its last famous tea party in Boston. Rather British emigrants came under the influence of other nationalities, especially the Germans and the Dutch, gave up their native customs, and acquired a taste for coffee. He was certain, however, that if North Americans were served high quality teas, they were “quite ready to fall back on their old habit of tea drinking.”75 The editor of the Ceylon Observer similarly urged planters to return British North Americans to their cultural origins before their neighborhoods swelled with the increasing tide of ethnically diverse “European” coffee drinkers.76 Those who backed the Ceylon tea industry were thus fascinated by the ever-expanding population in the States. However, they also worried that the wrong sort of people could dilute British North American’s dormant taste for tea.
Ceylon’s planters thus assumed that Americans, living both in the U.S. and in Canada, possessed the necessary culture and capital to absorb their surplus harvests. The problem, they felt, was retail not consumer resistance. The American tea trade, which at that time imported and distributed Chinese and Japanese teas, stopped other teas from making their way to market. When South Asia’s teas first appeared, a New York “Ring” formed, bought up all the teas and shipped them right back to London. H.K. Rutherford, a planter who was passionate about the need to promote Ceylon’s tea in foreign markets, urged his colleagues to organize into a Syndicate in the first place because “unity of action” and a “defined plan” was necessary to defeat the New York Ring and introduce “our teas into America.”77 Ceylon’s growers agreed with Rutherford and in 1886 they formed a voluntary tea syndicate fund designed to “promote a demand for the article where it is not present.”78 As India’s had done, Ceylon’s Syndicate distributed teas to grocers and others in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.79 They also hired Shand to run their global campaign. Shand in turn sought out “colonial merchants” and planters as agents to promote Ceylon’s tea at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition held in London that year. The agents then moved on to foreign territories on the Continent, The United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and in “South African, West Indian, and other Colonies.”80 In 1887, a second fund supported exhibition work in Argentina, Southern Ireland, Russia, Vienna and Constantinople.81
In 1888 a new group, known simply as the Ceylon Association, was created to further planters’ interests in London. Like the ITA this body immediately commenced what would become an on-going discussion on the nature of consumer tastes and desires.82 Though it had many fits and starts, at key moments the Ceylon Association was at the forefront of global advertising and promotions, especially in North America. Ceylon’s planters spent much of their initial energies trying to thwart New York’s Tea Ring. One expert on the American market recommended avoiding the metropolis altogether by directly courting “householders and housewives in the towns of New England…and the Central and Western States.” “The grandest opening for the introduction of the wholesome teas, of India and Ceylon that can be found anywhere on the world’s surface” was, the Ceylon Observer believed, among the “town dwellers and rural populous to the West and North of Washington, New York, and Boston.”83 Another correspondent also advised directly selling to “the tea dealers in surrounding states and their distributing towns.” The surest route to retailers and to the “heads of families,” he wrote, was to lecture to them. “We know of no better means of reaching the American intelligence than by lectures,” this author believed.84 This letter repeated an oft-noted “fact” about American business and consumer culture. Americans, most Ceylon planters imagined, were especially “fond of lectures.” This author concluded that to “strengthen and extend the incipient business in our teas,” growers should hire planter-turned-propagandist, J.L. Shand to conduct a “judiciously managed lecturing tour through the States and Canada.”85 The Ceylon Planter’s Association agreed and appointed Shand as official Tea Commissioner, charged with representing the colony’s teas in “foreign” markets. He had already been involved in key exhibitions in Britain and, through his various travels and lecturing, was one of a handful of individuals who had obtained a detailed knowledge about consumer tastes.
When discussing these tours, Ceylon’s business community characterized American customers as an educated and rational people whose tastes could be conquered through factual information. Lecturing also importantly created long-distance yet personal relationships. Shand, for example, made numerous acquaintances in the U.S. and used this knowledge to better tailor his selling strategies.86 Lecturing conveyed information to consumers but it also was a crude form of market research in which planters hoped to gain information about customer’s tastes and desires. Print advertising and promotional materials typically accompanied tea demonstrations and lecture tours. So, for example, the Planters Association also distributed “Ceylon Tea,” a pamphlet that denigrated the “inferior teas” of China and Japan as adulterated and potentially harmful. Ceylon’s teas by contrast were healthy, produced by machinery under the supervision of British eyes. Ceylon planters thereby used the same sort of marketing strategies that Indian tea sellers had practiced in Britain for decades.87
Planters often became retailers and salesman, moving to new business communities, where they took the lead in advertising colonial products. They stayed in touch with their former colleagues through letters and journals, in which they wrote about American merchants, advertising strategies and tastes. Readers of the Ceylon Observer, for example, engaged in an exchange with R.E. Pineo and Murray, a Philadelphia-based company that was among the first to sell Ceylon’s produce to American consumers. Mr. J. McCombie Murray and R.E. Pineo had both been tea planters in Ceylon but when they “retired,” they joined hands, moved to Philadelphia and began cultivating a taste for their produce by distributing free samples to leading families of the city. They also pushed their own brand of foreign-sounding, “Kootee” Ceylon tea.88 One of the firm’s advertisements, a multi-verse poem explained how Ceylon’s phoenix-like tea industry grew from the ashes of its now devastated coffee plantations, was republished in the Observer.89 The ad was addressed to American ladies and suggested they had the fate of an industry and an island in their tea cups. It also asked consumers to reflect upon, if only for a fleeting moment, the exotic and political nature of their everyday shopping choices.
Fair Ladies! All, of every charm possessed,
To you alone, these lines are now addressed,
On you we feel that all our hopes depend,
Through you alone, we hope to gain our end.
We’re strangers; Yes! But cannot so remain,
Unless we long do work, and work in vain,
If you, fair ladies, greet us with a smile,
We’ll pine no more for Ceylon’s Spice Isle…”90
The ad did not promote the notion of the British Empire, however. It spoke as a Ceylon tea merchant teaching American housewives that they should avoid India’s inferior product:
India, our northern neighbors, were zealous,
But soon of our speedy success became jealous;
For strength in the cup they were equal in favor,
But as pure drinking tea we could beat them in flavour.91 Appealing to women was much like a lecture tour, partly a means to avoid existing supply chains. It also encouraged an imperialistic and cosmopolitan perspective among average Americans but denied that India and Ceylon were constituent parts of a larger formation—the British Empire. Thus, when American consumers were informed about the pleasures of drinking South Asian tea, they associated this commodity with Asia not Britain. These tendencies – to move outside of preexisting commercial networks and to brand tea with distinctive national qualities – became fixed in the years to come as marketing efforts reached new levels of expertise and bureaucracy.
R.E. Pineo and Murray’s history exemplifies the nature of global business in the late 1880s. Pineo and his partner had helped found Ceylon’s tea industry but they were equally well informed in American tastes and communicated their ideas to Ceylon’s growers through correspondence, but also through the press, particularly through the Ceylon Observer. In one important letter, for example, the company provided information about American tastes and established itself as a conduit for knowledge as well as goods. Newspapers such as the Observer, which was not exclusively a trade paper, were one of the key sites in which businessmen in such diverse reaches of the globe communicated with each other.92 From this letter, written by Pineo himself, we also learn how his firm sold itself to growers by establishing its reputation as knowledgeable about the commodity, the nature of production and of consumption. The most important part of the letter, however, related specific proposals on how to sell to America. As Pineo explained his company had been “energetically” occupied in selling “a pure Ceylon tea” in both Canada and the U.S. since 1885. But, despite McCombie-Murray’s “gentleman’s vigor and push” and his own steadfast efforts, they had heretofore met with little success. Limited capital and the vast size of the American market—estimated here at about sixty million people—had been overwhelming. Pineo set forth six specific points that he felt would overcome such difficulties.
First—A delicate, highly-flavored pekoe tea is an absolute desideratum.
Second—A man with push, energy, an abundance of capital, and thoroughly versed in the art (?) of American advertising.
Third—To maintain a uniform standard of tea.
Fourth—to refrain from sending strong, pungent, coarse teas until the more delicate varieties are known and recognized by the American and Canadian consumer.
Fifth—To work independently of grocers, retail tea dealers and jobbers of tea.
Lastly—To see that only pure Ceylon tea is sold by your representatives.93
Pineo’s suggestions were nearly identical to those being debated among both Ceylon and India’s planters at the time.94 Basically, Pineo was telling growers what they already knew but perhaps didn’t want to hear. To conquer a territory as vast as North America, growers would require “an abundance of capital” to hire a man with “energy” and advertising experience. They could not rely on the American tea trade to do the pushing for them. As McCombie-Murray wrote in another letter in the Ceylon Observer, to be “progressive in this country one must be aggressive.”95Thus, Ceylon’s planters were well aware that they needed to spend more money to sell more goods in new ways.
Merchants like Pineo hoped that their global expertise would lead to an appointment as Ceylon’s special tea agents. Another associate of Pineo’s, the New York entrepreneur S. Elwood May also sought Ceylon’s attention by emphasizing his extensive advertising experience with several different new commodities.96 He promised that if he were named the “Accredited Representative Agent of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon” he would advertise extensively, package Ceylon’s tea in an “attractive” manner, and distribute it free of charge.97 May essentially argued that he was the vigorous but gentlemanly sort of individual Ceylon was looking for. Some resented this boldness and questioned May’s character and motives, but the Dimbula Planter’s Association passed a resolution to work with him.98 The more general Planters’ Association rejected May’s proposal because he wouldn’t agree to buy their teas unless he was named the Association’s special agent.99 Perhaps taking advantage of May’s failure, Pineo unofficially positioned himself as the planters’ representative by launching a new company called the Ceylon Planters’ American Tea Company in 1889.100
Charles Ker Reid similarly built a career based on South Asian and American expertise. Reid founded a coffee roasting and tea packing firm in Philadelphia in 1891 after working in both Australia and London as a specialty dealer for Assam’s teas.101 Reid sold South Asia while lecturing to Grocers’ Associations and publishing articles such as “The Tea Leaf of Commerce” in trade journals like the Pennsylvania Grocer.102In also taught growers about the U.S. and in numerous letters Reid urged the development of a product that conformed to preexisting tastes. America’s palate, he repeated, was unaccustomed to the heavier black South Asian teas. Changing tastes wasn’t easy. Indeed it would take the efforts of a “missionary…to revolutionize the palate of a country.” Since this task could “only be compared to establishing a new religion,” it would in fact be easier to employ “machinery and superior science” to develop a more delicate Ceylon Oolong.103 In years to come, planters tried to do this but they also continued to work on the North American palate.
Before Lipton began building his empire, planter’s syndicates and associations had worked with importers and retailers to bring their teas to the attention of consumers in numerous places around the world. By the late 1880s there were already several dozen firms in Britain, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania and Canada dealing in pure Ceylon tea.104 There were just as many vending India’s teas. Long forgotten businesses such as the Hop Tea Foreign and Colonial Syndicate even claimed to be selling their mixture of hops and tea throughout Europe, India, and other parts of the Empire.105 The tea share brokers Gow, Wilson and Stanton proudly celebrated British Grown teas’ successes. In a circular they issued in 1890 they commented on advances made in North and South America, including Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay. They also claimed that South Africa had proved its “appreciation of British Grown Tea,” as had Australia and Russia. These teas had made inroads in smaller markets as well, including Constantinople, Belgium, Holland and Germany106 Companies such as Gow, Wilson and Stanton pronounced South Asian teas as an example of collective British enterprise, but Ceylon and India were in fact intensely competitive with each other, especially in the potentially lucrative North American market. Though it appeared that the world was taking to South Asian teas in the 1880s, growers felt that they did not have enough capital to truly develop markets outside of Britain.107 Problems became especially clear as international exhibitions grew into especially extravagant and expensive spectacles.108
Since the 1870s, planters had peddled their wares at countless local, national and international exhibitions across Europe, North America and in the colonies. Fairgoers sipped cups of tea in Ceylon and Indian Courts and tea kiosks at large and small exhibitions all over Europe, North America and in many British colonies. As noted above, Ceylon and India had been in Melbourne in 1880. Their teas were also displayed in Calcutta and London in the 1870s and 1880s.109 They were in Amsterdam in 1883, Liverpool in 1887, Glasgow, Brussels and Melbourne again in 1888, France and New Zealand in 1889, Chicago in 1893, and Russia in 1894.110 J.L. Shand, who had displayed Ceylon’s produce at many of these shows, wrote in the summer of 1888 that he was “personally…sick of them.” However, he advised that he could “think if no better way of pushing our teas than an Exhibition,” and urged Ceylon, not “to lose the chance of an Exhibition anywhere.”111
As numerous scholars have shown, these public gatherings have served many purposes and conveyed multiple meanings about race and nation, economy and modernity.112 They were also a very important feature of Victorian and early 20th century commercial culture. Fairs were marketplaces in which new products competed for prizes and potential buyers. They served as arenas in which buyers and sellers formed relationships around particular goods and were often at the center of widespread advertising campaigns. The logistics involved in staging these shows had consequences in places, such as India and Ceylon, which we have not yet understood. Exhibitions stimulated the development of marketing experts, international relationships, and a system of advertising and financing that had a lasting legacy.
In 1893 growers around the empire read with anticipation about the giant show about to be put on in America’s great Midwestern metropolis. The Planters’ Gazette, a journal which claimed to speak for planters in India, Ceylon, the West Indies, Straits Settlements, Mauritius, South America, China and Java, celebrated the “excellent market” now being opened for British grown teas in the United States and surmised that “Chicago should do much to place [that market] on a sound and permanent basis.”113 Largely because of Chicago in 1893 and the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition held in St. Louis a decade later, planters organized their conquest of American tastes in its Midwestern states. Both of these international shows had a widespread impact on the tea industry in South Asia and elsewhere. The history of these two gigantic fairs highlights the role of the exhibition in the growth of global commerce, the way that South Asia appeared in the U.S. and how the U.S. appeared to British businessmen and statesmen. Ceylon and India were intensely competitive with one another and their marketing efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere helped create, at least in American eyes, a sense of two distinct South Asian nations, disaggregated from the larger British imperial polity.114
Though both Ceylon and India had already been in the U.S. for more than a decade, the Chicago spectacle launched the official beginning of their American campaigns.115 Although Ceylon’s government and most in the planting industry were dedicated to supporting the Tea Fund in principle, its directors complained frequently that dues went unpaid and the government hadn’t stepped in to help.116 Voluntarism seemed especially inadequate for Chicago. In January of 1893, just months before the World’s Fair opened, Ceylon’s government levied a tax or cess on all exported teas. In 1894 it also created an official body, known as the Committee of Thirty, to administer the funds, whose purpose “was to increase the consumption of tea in foreign lands.”117 Ceylon’s Planter’s Association, Chamber of Commerce and government contributed approximately ₤21,000, which was three times as much as India, to create a particularly lavish spectacle and to establish a “central permanent depot” for Ceylon teas in Chicago after it closed.
Mr. J.J. Grinlinton, a member of Ceylon’s legislative council, was appointed the colony’s Special Commissioner for the World’s Columbian Exhibition. Grinlinton arrived in Chicago a full year before the show was to open in order to establish a good working relationship with the Exhibition officials and negotiate the best sites for Ceylon’s main court and tea kiosks. Ceylon’s court was built entirely out of native wood which was carved in a style demonstrating the island’s ancient architecture. Both its structure and decorative motifs replicated Ceylon’s religious and artistic history. So, for example, the steps leading to the main court were guarded by cobra-shrouded figures which adapted the designs present at the ruined temples at Anurádhapura and Polonnáruwa, two ancient capitals of the island nation [fig. 1]. These same figures could also be found guarding shrines throughout Ceylon as they were thought to ward off evil.118 Pillars, windows, and ceilings were all similarly decorated with elephants, lions, dancers and other well-known symbols of Sinhalese culture [fig. 2]. Native artists depicted the island’s religions with painted scenes from the life of Buddha and other traditional practices. Colossal statues of Buddha and Vishnu also flanked the central hall [fig. 3].119 Ceylon’s planters were certainly excited by this display but were worried that Grinlinton had been influenced by the “land of big things” and that his request for twenty thousand pounds was far beyond what they had expected.120 He responded to such charges by arguing that this lavish display of art, industry and culture would do one thing, “place our Ceylon teas in the American market.”121
The Chicago organizers evidently were evidently impressed for they provided Ceylon with special space for both the Main Court and for three mini Ceylon courts, each containing “Ceylon servants dressed in native costume” ready to serve visitors refreshing cups of hot tea. Ceylon main court was situated between that of France and Austria and across from Norway. It was a short distance from Ecuador, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Ceylon wasn’t too far from Great Britain, but it was not all that close either. It thus stood as its own nation rich in history and tasty produce. Grinlinton also recognized that women were the primary tea drinkers and buyers in the U.S. and he especially wanted to reach female fairgoers. He therefore negotiated with Mrs. Potter Palmer for space in the Woman’s Building for one of his mini kiosks.122 This court was then organized by a committee of ladies, headed by Lady Havelock, the wife of Ceylon’s governor and it was designed to exemplify art and industry that had all been the “work of women’s hands.”123 In keeping with the general vision of the Women’s Building, Ceylon’s court appealed to modern women’s tastes for public recognition of female industry. It represented tea as essentially a modern beverage produced in a beautiful yet timeless place. Ceylon’s colonial history was indicated by the island’s productions, specifically through its tea and other agricultural products and its machinery and farm tools.
Ceylon’s exhibit thus juxtaposed the ancient and modern, art and industry.124 This story reinforced and undercut the Exhibition’s official theme. Marking Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, Chicago celebrated the industrial and imperial progress of the New World. Ceylon’s tea industry illustrated the continued viability of Old World imperialism.125 Both narratives used race to sell goods. Indeed, the advertising icon “Aunt Jemima” first appeared at Chicago in the person of Nancy Green, a former slave from Kentucky, who served pancakes to fairgoers from inside a booth designed to look like a giant flour barrel.126 Such displays literally allowed Americans to savor their whiteness. Yet, Ceylon’s spectacle hoped to develop a sophisticated palate which would enable visitors to distinguish among similar Eastern tastes. In practice, the exhibit and official handbooks that accompanied it actually paved the way for American enterprise in Ceylon by providing visitors with digestible knowledge about the colony. Indeed, Ceylon’s exposition handbook went further than the exhibit by supplying businessmen, tourists and others with a history and ethnography of the island. Advertisements too provided readers with the names of agents and others who would help them do business in this far-off British colony.127 Such exhibits sold colonial products to American consumers in ways which made colonial spaces familiar and desirable.
Yet, colonial exhibits might very well have left fairgoers very confused since there were quite a number of exhibits and buildings that presented a staged version of the “East.” For example, India also attempted to court customers by producing a lavish oriental show centered upon tea production and consumption. The East Indian pavilion, which adjoined that of Sweden, Haiti and New South Wales, was designed by the famous Chicago architect, Henry Ives Cobb. Cobb’s structure was described as “Oriental in its minutest detail,” including Indian carpets, utensils, vessels and mosaic work inlaid with filigree and precious metals.128 Its chief exhibit was Indian tea, which was served in hand-painted crockery in which turbaned Indian servants “distributed little pots of tea to all comers free of charge.”129 Mr. Richard Blechynden, the Indian Tea Association’s Tea Commissioner at Chicago stated in an interview that he would not let India be “outdone by their Ceylon rivals.” He pronounced that he served nearly 6,000 cups of the “fragrant-smelling liquid” daily at the Fair. Almost as soon as it touched their lips, customers were convinced that black Indian tea was better than the “faintly-coloured beverage” to which they were accustomed.130 Of course, such hyperbolic statements were part of Blechynden’s salesmanship and helped him capture the attention of the news media, which led stories on India’s exhibit with headlines such as “From Old Bombay,” “Looking for New Markets,” “They Wish to Establish Trade with America.”131
Retailers evidently liked what they saw and tasted since over 1,500 American tea firms signed agreements in Chicago to stock Indian tea.132 After the Fair closed Blechynden launched a coordinated newspaper campaign and hired “Indian servants” in “picturesque costumes” to move from store to store and city to city to serve tea at “leading American tea firms” and at various “food shows” throughout the Midwest.133 The Midwest remained the core territory for planters’ marketing efforts, which for decades sold South Asian tea by popularizing South Asia. At times this included cooperative work between India and Ceylon but more often than not India and Ceylon were characterized as distinct brands from two different nations.
Individual companies and Blechynden’s counterpart representing Ceylon’s growers also toured the U.S. during these years and created similar tea displays to court American retailers and consumers.134 One trade observer maintained in 1897 that everywhere he went he encountered “photographs and scenes in the tea gardens of Ceylon.” Many of these emphasized the beauty of the gardens, but they were intended to present the island as the home of “machine-made tea.”135 Both American and British retailers were branding their teas by associating them with the “East,” and as one journalist commented, they often employed images of “attractive young women…to set forth the merits of the brand.”136 Many companies promoted both India and Ceylon as the “teas of the future,” but this invariably implied an image of nature tamed. For example, at a large food show hosted by Philadelphia’s Retail Grocer’s Association, Ceylon and Indian were represented by several displays of tea gardens “wherein maidens passably fair invite you to tarry and sup.” Tetley’s had a second exhibit at the show, in which fairgoers could also “obtain a cup of the delicious beverage, and go away provided with a beautiful lithographed brochure…” 137
Large retailers like Lyon’s and Lipton’s repeatedly used images of tea gardens and “comely” women in their ads and exhibits in Britain to develop a distinct sense of South Asian teas as “imperial” to compete with their East Asian rivals.138 However these global images were also produced by Americans working in conjunction with British planters, and their significance outside of Britain was somewhat different. In the U.S., for example, consumers would have understood South Asia as an enticing, alluring place safely tamed by modern enterprise. At these exhibits and in these ads the world appeared as an enjoyable place, eagerly ready to entice them with a free sample.139 Thus, Americans were constituted both as consumers and imperialists, even though they did not in fact possess the lands, peoples or the commodities on display.
Certainly South Asia was quite visible in the United States in the 1890s, as competition between tea companies and growing nations became quite fierce. During that time, American retailers accepted that South Asia had “come to stay.” However, East Asia had not yet given up the fight.140 In fact, after Chicago other growing nations stepped up their efforts to pursue North American consumers. Japanese tea merchants even asked for government subsidies to promote their teas in the US. Ceylon similarly raised a very large amount to advertise teas in America.141 Though China had fallen far behind India, it appeared on the verge of industrializing and thus might re-emerge as a stalwart competitor. “An enterprising Chinese ‘Creeper,” traveling in Ceylon “yearning for information” in 1897 caused some concern, for example. Commenting on this incidence of industrial spying, one writer asserted that “Supremacy in the tea market was fought for keenly, and won by pluck and perseverance. It must be held tightly.”142 Such anxieties encouraged a new, though temporary, cooperation between India and Ceylon to promote South Asian teas. This alliance provided Richard Blechynden with sufficient funds to advertise both India and Ceylon teas in leading journals circulating throughout the East Coast and Midwest in the late 1890s.143 Both India’s and Ceylon’s teas were gaining a larger market share, with Ceylon gaining an even greater hold in American households, and this was interpreted as evidence that propaganda paid.144