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Markmann Ellis explains why people of the 18th Century drank tea.

What was tea drinking for in the eighteenth century?

by on July 6th, 2011

Guest blogger: Markmann Ellis

Markman Ellis is Professor of Eighteenth Century Studies at Queen Mary University of London. He is the editor of ‘Tea and the Tea-Table in Eighteenth-Century England’.

No. 5: What was tea drinking for in the eighteenth century?

When tea was first promoted in England in the 1650s, it was considered, like coffee, as a kind of medicine. What else could explain its odd bitterish flavour? Some people couldn’t understand what the fuss was about, refusing to believe the inflated claims about its medicinal virtues, and unable to appreciate its delicate taste. One Irish satirist called John Waldron, wrote an extremely bitter and aggressive attack on the widespread taste for tea, which he considered was nothing more than a fashion for the exotic and expensive. He ridiculed the inflated claims made for the qualities, or physiological properties, of tea, especially its supposed healthful properties, and thought tea connoisseurship what nothing more than pedantic fakery. Looking at the appearance of an expensive green tea in a porcelain cup, Waldon was lead to claim that ‘chopped hay’ in warm water would be as good.

Nonetheless, poets praised tea as the elixir of the muses. The poet and tea merchant Peter Motteux stated that tea ‘has the Balm and Comfort of a Cordial, without the Headiness of our strong Spirits; and chears the Heart, without disordering the Head’. In his A Poem upon Tea, published in 1712, he praises tea as the best thing to clear a head befuddled by wine. Tea was, he claimed, a kind of panacea, a universal cure, a ‘liquid gold’ that ‘cures at once the Body and the Mind’. Tea encouraged the muse of creativity, and as such he recommended tea especially to poets and scholars. But it also encouraged a civilized and peaceful life, and as such was especially beneficial for women, or as he poetically called them, ‘the fair’:

‘One Blessing more, and Europe’s Ills must cease’;
Add Tea and Health to Liberty and Peace.
Tea in the Man makes all Blessings live,
And giving Health the greatest Good can give.
Let every British Fair its Virtues try.
Like them, the Drink is charming, clear and chaste;
To make ’em love, persuade them but to taste.

Women had long been associated with tea-drinking, going back to the 1660s, when elite women at the royal court, including Charles II’s wife Catherine of Braganza, had used tea and the tea-table as the focus of their sociable practices. The tea-table is the focus of much literary speculation in the early eighteenth century, in many poems and satires. The tea-table here is more than simply a table on which to serve tea: it is an idea that mixes together a place, a social occasion, and a particularly feminine form of conversation. The spectre of women drinking tea, though, made many men nervous: making them ask, ‘what are they talking about? The tea-table was in this way routinely derided as the locus of gossip and scandal. The ‘Entertainment of a Tea-Table’ is not provided by the tea, one satirist argued in 1707, but rather by the talk occasioned there: where the women are ‘letting a loose to their Passions and their busie Tongues, which are the Ambassadors of their evil Intentions, […] and Backbiting the whole World, is the chief Diversion among ’em, and Scandal the principal Dish of the Collation’. Whatever the women were talking about, it clearly raised the hackles of the men left outside.

  1. Mike Morris says:

    Could Professor Ellis perhaps discuss Dr. Johnson’s fondness for , and essay about, tea?