Previous in series: Black Tea Takes Over – Part 2

T stands for Tommy, and also for tea,
It is well-known on shore
He is quite to the fore,
But a little bit backward at sea.

-caption of a kindly 1913 caricature of Lipton before his fourth attempt to win yachting’s America Cup.

Considered to be the father of modern advertising, Thomas J. Lipton was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1850. At the age of fifteen he traveled to the United States with less than eight dollars in his pocket. After working on a Virginia tobacco farm, a rice plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, and a streetcar in New Orleans, Lipton got a job in a department store’s grocery In New York City. Here he witnessed American merchandising and advertising in action and absorbed lessons he never forgot.

Unlike millions of others who emigrated to the United States at that time, Lipton saved up his earnings and returned home to Scotland. After working in the family grocery store for awhile, he opened his own in Glasgow in 1871. His first publicity stunt was a traffic-jamming, headline-grabbing parade of the largest hogs in captivity bearing signs proclaiming: “I’m going to Lipton’s. The best shop in town for Irish bacon!” By 1880, Lipton had twenty stores, and by 1890 he had three hundred. He had become a household name throughout Britain, known as much for his hard work and abstemious lifestyle as for his innovative retailing and promotional techniques.

The turning point in Lipton’s career came after his success as a chain grocer when he entered the tea business. In 1889 he celebrated the arrival of his first twenty thousand tea chests in Glasgow with a parade of brass bands and bagpipers. The going rate for tea was then around three shillings a pound, but Lipton priced his at one shilling sevenpence.

Lipton’s tea empire really began, however, with his first-ever “vacation” to Australia, the next year, when he secretly stopped in Ceylon. There a recent blight had ruined the English coffee planters, and the survivors were planting tea. Lipton bought five bankrupt plantations – eventually acquiring about a dozen others – and unveiled the slogan “Direct from the Tea Gardens to the Teapot.”

The public came to identify the name “Thomas Lipton” with Ceylon tea, that was exactly what the Scotsman intended them to think. He loved to take guests for rather windy picnics on the six thousand foot summit of his favorite Ceylon property, Dambatenne, and gesture possessively at the the miles upon miles of indistinguishable jungle below, as if the island were one vast tea garden presided over by a genial father figure sporting a goatee, yachting cap and blue polka dot tie.

To be continued in Sir Tea – Part 2