There is a great deal of poetry and fine sentiment
in a chest of tea.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-83),
Letters And Social Aims
Amidst the roar of cannon and musketry, this great Republic was born–with a prenatal disinclination for tea. The colonists had given it up, abruptly but completely. En route to sign the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote his wife Abigail how he asked at a tavern, “Is it lawful for a weary traveler to refresh himself with a dish of tea, provided it has been honestly smuggled and has paid no duty?” The landlord’s daughter answered sternly: “No sir! We have renounced tea under this roof. But, if you desire it, I will make you some coffee.”
The 1 May 1785 Daily Advertiser of New York has four ads for Souchong on the first page, as opposed to one for tea wares, one for Bohea “seventy chest, very fresh,” and one offering “Souchong, Sequin, Tonkay Singlo and Bohea.” (Note that only since the domination of black tea in tea bags has “tea” meant just one thing, any more than the word “wine” designates a single sort of commodity.) But tea was by now an orphan product in post-Revolutionary America. When the Reverend Joseph McKean celebrated his ordination in Massachusetts that same year–presumably an austere occasion–the eighty-odd guests for both lunch and dinner consumed, according to the tavern bill, seventy-four bowls of a very alcoholic punch, twenty-eight bottles of wine, eight bowls of brandy and a shilling’s worth of cherry rum. At the bottom of this formidable bill appears this modest item: “Six people drank tea–9 pence.” Only six out of eighty-odd Americans drank tea in a year when England, having just repealed her taxes the year before, consumed thirty-two million pounds! The year before the Reverend McKean’s party Americans had bought those teas advertised in New York directly from the Chinese, finally bypassing England’s powerful monopoly, the East India Company.
Read next: An Empire Brewed From Tea Leaves – Part 1