The Dutch Colonists Import Tea and Tea Culture to North America

In 18th century America, tea customs stemmed from the social customs brought to New Amsterdam (now New York City) by Dutch settlers in the 17th century and by the English colonists. Dutch Colonists erected tea water pumps over natural springs and later established tea gardens near the springs. Not only were the early colonists drinking spring water, but also green tea, called hyson. Early colonists added sugar, even saffron and peach leaves. By the early 18th century, tea was considered the handmaiden of fashion and refinement. (Image from Wikipedia)

Dutch colonists in North America create specific wells for tea

Although much of the fine china adorning tables was from the Continent and China, teapots from local potteries established in New England, New York, New Jersey, and South Carolina found a special place at the tea table early in the 18th century. Many of the potters had emigrated from England. Accoutrements for the tea service became a symbol of gentility. The long-awaited tea all the way from China via England and Holland was an extravagance only the wealthy could afford. Tea chests and tea caddies often had locks, or the precious porcelain tea caddies would have been stored behind a locked cabinet. Uniquely American, the parlor closet in New England exuded the fragrance of hospitality, where the tea, sherry, and fruitcakes were always on hand for the unexpected visitor.

The tea trade with England and Holland centered in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. As early as 1690, a license to sell tea in Boston was issued to Benjamin Harris and Daniel Vernon. John Hancock and other well-known founding fathers engaged in smuggling tea, contributing to the reduction of tea purchased from the British from 320,000 pounds to only 520 pounds. By 1772, the East India Company had 18 million pounds of unsold tea in warehouses.

In June of 1772, merchants and sailors burnt the British schooner, Gaspee, at Namquit Point, Rhode Island, in protest of King George III’s amended Townshend Act, April 1770, when all duties would be removed except that on TEA. To save the East India Company and undercut the smugglers, Britain passed the Tea Act in 1773. On behalf of John Hancock and other known smugglers, Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty dumped 342 chests of tea worth 9,659 pounds sterling and six shillings into Boston Harbor.

Paul Revere played the part of an “Indian” tossing the precious cargo of tea into Boston Harbor on that dark December night in 1773. Following the Boston Tea Party, colonists up and down the east coast protested in New York, Greenwich, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Chestertown and Annapolis, Maryland, Edenton, North Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina. They followed suit by rejecting, throwing the tea overboard, boycotting, and in one case even had the owner of the Peggy Stewart burn his own ship in the Annapolis harbor.

Paul Revere, silversmith and one of his teapots.

Although some Americans renounced tea as a social beverage during the Revolutionary War, it regained popularity when the war ended. After the war the entrepreneurship of Americans like the Pecks of Boston, Derbys of Salem, Browns of Providence, Constables, Parkers, Schermerhorns, and Vanderbilts of New York, and the Morris family of Philadelphia, the United States of America entered the China trade. These families had ships built, sometimes making nearly 50% above their initial investment.

Shipbuilding provided multiple jobs: carpenters, sailmakers, and rope makers were just some of the tradesmen who benefited. The Yankees set sail for the Pacific Northwest, taking candles, oil, wool, glass, paper, and rum to trade for furs that we would take to China, along with some ginseng, woolen garments, cotton, and lead to barter for silks, spices, and their exotic tea. That first American ship, the Empress of China, was designed by Mr. Peck from Boston and refitted in New York. It set sail from New York on George Washington’s 52nd birthday, February 22, 1784.

On May 11, 1785, the Empress of China returned to New York with about 324,000 pounds of BLACK TEA, 75,000 pounds of GREEN TEA, NANKEEN hand-woven cloth (cotton), around 133,000 pounds of CHINAWARE to be stowed along the bottom of the hull, 490 pieces of SILK, and 2,780 pounds of CASSIA (Chinese cinnamon). Their total capital investment, $120,000, netted $30,727 (a little more than 25%).

Cover of the book, “Empress of China” by Philip Chadwick Smith

The new American government waived the duty fee for 9-18 months after an American ship returned from the Orient, thus allowing the merchants a virtually interest-free loan. After the first United States inauguration of George Washington in New York on April 30, 1789, the U.S. government levied its first tea tax of 15 cents a pound on black tea; 22 cents on Imperial; and 55 cents on Young Hyson.

Tea led the way in founding America. In a letter to George William Fairfax in June, George Washington wrote, “in short the ministry may rely on it that Americans will never be taxed without their own consent that the cause of Boston the despotic Measures in respect to it I mean now and is and ever will be considered as the cause of America (not that we approve their conduct in destroying the tea).” It is ironic that because the colonists did not accede to England’s Tea Act of 1773, George Washingtons own words would ring true fifteen years later, when we enacted our own taxation on tea. The 18th century witnessed the firm establishment of tea as a social (as well as therapeutic) beverage in the New World, the United States of America.

This article has been updated from the original publication in August of 2006.