Continued from Black Tea Takes Over – Part 1

In response to mass merchandizing and advertising, the British increased their consumption of (heavily sweetened) tea steadily right through World War I, and their counterparts in the British dominions followed suit. Australia absorbed tea at the astonishing rate of 7.7 pounds per capita in 1899; U.S. per capita consumption reached its highest point in 1897 at 1.56 pounds. Europe’s tea consumption soared also, especially in Russia. Moscow’s most famous literary teahouse steeped thirty-three pounds o tea daily – almost six tons a year!

China’s peak year for tea exports was 1886; Russia received 27 percent of that total, half the amount of Great Britain but twice that of the U.S. Following the Opium Wars, Russian capitalists had set up their own black tea factories in Hankow in 1861 and gradually gained control of brick tea manufacturing throughout China. The caravan trade went on growing in volume right up to 1880, when the first link of the Trans-Siberian Railroad was opened.

With the completion of the railway in 1900, the caravans passed into history, finally returning Usk Kayakhta to the obscurity it so richly deserves. The tea that had formerly required many months to reach ussian samovars made the trip by rail in seven weeks.

Two innovations that revolutionized tea habits and the tea industry in the U.S. date from the first decade of the twentieth century. The first may be traced to the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, the one the song “Meet Me in St. Louis” was written for. Most of the tea drunk in America at that time came from China, and in the Midwest, for reasons that have never been entirely clear to me, people drank mostly green teas. To popularize Indian tea, therefore, an association of India tea producers established a special pavilion at the fair, staffed with exquisitely mannered and beturbaned Indian servers under the supervision of an Englishman named Richard Blechynden. The scorching Midwestern summer gives New Delhi competition in the Fahrenheit category, however, and Blechynden’s exotic, steaming brew was the last thing the sweltering fairgoers felt like sampling. Before long, Blechynden himself began sweating, for there was no unemployment compensation at the time, and in his desperation began pouring his tea into glasses crammed with ice just to get people to drink it. People drank it. They came back for more and carried the liking for it back home with them. This was born a new American drink — iced tea.

Though uncommon in other countries, as the millennium dawns the United States is drinking almost fifty billion glasses of iced tea a year as compared to ten billion cups of hot. It takes over two hundred million pounds of tea to fill those cups and glasses each year. That under 5 percent of this amount is now sold as lose tea is due to a second accidental innovation, the tea bag.

In 1908, a New York City tea importer named Thomas Sullivan made an effort to economize on his operating costs by sending samples out to his retail dealers and private customers in little silk bags sewn closed by hand. He was perplexed but delighted when virtually everybody placed orders. Only when they all complained that the tea he delivered wasn’t packaged in those bags for convenience for steeping, did he get the idea to substitute gauze for the silk and rake in sizable profits, producing the first tea bags.

Expensive and elaborate machines and special papers or fibers are used today, but this development, like instant tea, has more to do with business administration and international finance than with the present history. At best tea bags compromise tea quality; most are contemptible; and many beneath contempt. I offer no cringing apologetics for the lowest common-denominator tea: I drink it too. Iced tea and tea bags, made for the most part with tea dust and fannings rather than full leaves, have their place in modern American life, I ungrudgingly acknowledge; the point I’m making is that even the poorest peasant in the homeland of tea would feel entitled to better.

Read next: Sir Tea – Part 1