Top Ten Things You Didn't Know about Tea

I haven’t talked tea much here, although I believe I’ve mentioned that I am writing the first comprehensive history of tea drinking and tea culture under the Romanov dynasty in Russia (1613-1917). Maybe I’ll blog about that little project sometime soon. 

Knowing that I write tea history, people often send me links to articles about tea, which I find interesting.

What I find very boring is that most of the popular literature out there on tea—and believe me, gentle reader, there is a TON of it—all says pretty much the same thing. The same landmark events are rehearsed, the same tired quotes trotted out. 

Well, as someone who has spent the last eight years researching tea, I here present to you, in no particular order, ten of what I consider to be the most interesting and entertaining moments in tea history. 

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1. Cuppa smouch. From the very earliest days of the European love affair with tea, underhanded tea dealers tried to pawn off different species of leaves and various additives as genuine tea. Sometimes the adulteration would take place before the product even left China, and very often, Europeans were none the wiser. In the eighteenth century, a popular illegal tea surrogate was known as “smouch,” and consisted of a mixture of sheep’s dung and dried ash leaves. In 1785, Thomas Twining wrote a short recipe for smouch so that his readers could identify and report it: “When gathered they [ash leaves] are first dried in the sun then baked. They are next put on the floor and trod upon until the leaves are small, then lifted and steeped in copperas [hydrated ferrous sulphate], with sheep’s dung, after which, being dried on the floor, they are fit for use.” Twining estimated that in one small area of eight or nine square miles, approximately 20 tons of smouch were manufactured each year.

2. Sold by the candle. In the first decades of the British East India Company tea trade, tea was auctioned off “by the candle.” Someone would light a candle, and the auction would begin. The hammer fell when one inch of the candle had burned away. Records show that in 1678, a certain warehouse employee earned the handsome sum of £10 for “setting up the candle” for an EIC tea auction.

3. Bowels of Mercy. History has not given John Wesley, that famous Methodist, enough credit for coining this phrase, which he did in 1748. In his anti-tea tract Letter to a Friend Concerning TEA, Wesley entreats his readers to abstain from this oh-so-pernicious beverage: “Pray earnestly for a clear Light, for a full, piercing and steady Conviction that this is a more excellent [tea-free] way, for a spirit of universal Self-Denial, for Bowels of Mercy, for a mild, even Courage. Then you will once more, in all Readiness of Heart, make this little sacrifice to God.” Contrary to his own exhortations, Wesley himself drank multiple cups of tea per day. 

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4. Tea salad. From ancient times, many people have eaten tea leaves, instead of using them to make a hot drink. The Burmese used to make a sort of pickled tea salad, and Tibetans still sometimes mix tea with rancid yak butter, barley meal, and salt to make a high-calorie breakfast or snack. Occasionally, Europeans and Americans didn’t get the memo and ate their tea instead of drinking it. In 1850, the poet Robert Southey told a story about the first tea ever to reach Massachusetts. The anecdote may be entirely apocryphal, but it’s no less entertaining for that: “It [the tea] was sent as a present without directions how to use it. They boiled the whole at once in a kettle, and sat down to eat the leaves with butter and salt; and they wondered how anybody could like such a dish.”

5. Shorthand and defluxions. You have probably read that Samuel Pepys, the celebrated seventeenth-century diarist, famously recorded on September 25, 1660, that he “did send for a Cupp of Tee (a China drink), of which I had never drank before.” What you may not know about Pepys is that he kept his diary in shorthand, and it looked like this: 

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Seven years later, in 1667, Pepys came home to find his wife making tea, “which Mr. Pelling the potticary, tells her is good for her cold and defluxions.” What are defluxions? A runny nose. 

6. Liquid assets. Almost from its very first appearance in China, tea leaves were used as currency, as were coffee beans in Arabia, cola nuts in Africa, and cacao pods and mate leaves in the Americas. Chinese peasants preferred small compressed bricks of tea leaves over paper money, because the latter diminished in value the further one travelled from the imperial center. Plus, at a pinch, the tea money could be crushed and consumed. 

7. Theine. The use of caffeine-bearing plants by humans predates recorded history, but caffeine as a substance was not discovered until 1819, when the young German physician Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge first isolated it. About six years later, the medically active substance in tea was also isolated, and was called theine. It would take about another century, however, before modern science realized that caffeine and theine are the same substance, and that caffeine is also present in chocolate, mate, and other plants. In 1874, a Russian named A.P. Vladimirov published a pamphlet about the dangerous effects of theine on human health. These are, according to Vladimirov:

1) Laziness toward physical labor
2) Laziness toward mental labor
3) Excessive talkativeness
4) Literary garrulousness, which he defined as an excess of fiction and lies in the popular press
5) The consumption of such useless literature, which is in itself a form of mental laziness
6) Careless and thoughtless attitude toward practical life
7) Premature and excessive sexual excitement
8) An artificial sense of spiritual excitement, which can plummet as fast as it comes on. 

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8. A leaf and a prayer. Any tea drinker worth his or her salt will tell you that steeping time makes all the difference. In 1664, Sir Kenelm Digby penned the following advice to would-be sippers: “In these parts we let the hot water remain too long soaking upon the tea, which maketh it extract into it self the earthly parts of the herb. The water is to remain upon [the tea] no longer than whilst you can say the Miserere psalm very leisurely...Thus you have only the spiritual parts of the Tea, which is much more active, penetrative and friendly to nature.” 

9. Down with Tea! Long live Beer! The great Scotch jurist Duncan Forbes was scandalized that tea had begun to replace beer as the breakfast beverage of the honest British worker. He went so far as to protest against tea in a letter to Parliament, in which he wrote: “The cause of the mischief we complain of is evidently the excessive use of tea, which is now become so common that the meanest families, even of labouring people, particularly in boroughs, make their morning meal of it, and thereby disuse the ale which heretofore was their accustomed drink.” 

10. The bubbling and loud hissing urn. I’ll leave you with this deconstruction of yet another beloved tea quotation. The eighteenth-century poet William Cowper penned a much-loved stanza in 1783 that gets quoted in every popular tea book under the sun. 

Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round, 
And while the bubbling and loud hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each
So let us welcome peaceful evening in. 

The tea urn, or samovar, is a metal device for heating water for tea that has been around since the eighteenth century. In fact, they had been in existence for only about 30 years when Cowper wrote those famous lines. Less famous is the sad fate of Cowper’s own tea urn. He wrote to a friend complaining about “the one we have at present having never been handsome, and being now old and patched. A parson once, as he walked across the room, pushed it down with his belly, and it never perfectly recovered itself.”