Tea traveled to America with the colonists who arrived from all European countries, with some colonies like New Amsterdam (modern day New York) being heavier tea drinkers than all of England at the time (Smith & Kraig, 2013). The British implemented a mercantile system, as with its other colonies, which focused on trade to increase its wealth. With this system London based businesses were protected through the use of trade barriers, regulations, and subsidies but it also required the British government to fight smuggling and illegal trading with other countries, especially by American merchants.
Early American Tea Experience
American Tea consumption is tied tightly to the early ship building in the colonies. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania were both major ship building colonies, where craftsman took advantage of the abundance of local resources, craftsman, and cheap labor to build more and faster clipper ships than the British. Many of these clipper ships were put into use by the American merchants to trade directly with other countries, bypassing the British government. Smuggling was extremely common in the American colonies and tea was high on the list of illegal goods.
The colonists adopted many of the British customs like tea drinking both at home and in public coffeehouses (Yes, coffeehouses did exist 300 years before Starbucks). It should be noted that much of the tea consumed in the colonies and Britain was green tea (Smith & Kraig, 2013). The social demand for tea, and the additional taxes levied on tea from the British East India Company made smuggled tea a very common commodity in the colonies, most coming from the Dutch East India Company. The loss of revenue by the British East India Company did not go unnoticed and in 1767 the tea tax was levied. This tax became one of many levied on the colonists in the ten years leading to the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. As Joseph M. Walsh noted in 1892, “The birth of the greatest nation of all time due to a three-penny tax on tea!” (Walsh, 1892)
After the revolution, American merchants used their clipper ships to go direct to China for trade, bringing tea and other goods legally into the United States without British involvement. These merchants became the first of the American millionaires, with tea being a dominant contributor to their wealth. This wealth was later used to give loans to the fledgling American government to purchase arms for the War of 1812 other ventures necessary to stabilize and expand the country.
American Industry and Tea
Tea consumption thrived in the United States through the 1800’s with farmers experimenting with growing tea plants in the country. The US Department of Agriculture even published a study about using tea as a commercial crop in 1897. There is still a commercial tea plantation in South Carolina, new tea farms in Hawaii, and the US League of Tea Growers working to increase the growth of tea in America.
It was in the early 1900’s that America made perhaps its largest contribution to modern tea culture, first through the large scale introduction of iced tea and then through the invention of the tea bag. While iced tea has been documented in American cookbooks dating back to 1870’s, it was at the World’s Fair in 1904 that iced tea was introduced in a big way to the public. With the warmer US climates, iced tea still remains the most consumed tea in the US. The second was the accidental invention of the tea bag by an American, Thomas Sullivan, who sent small samples of his tea in silk bags to his clients in 1908. Those clients went on to ask Thomas to send their tea in bags going forward and since silk was expensive he created his bags out of paper.
American Tea Consumption and World Wars
American tea consumption saw significant declines around World War I (1914-1919) and then again around World War II (1939-1945) because of significant disruption in trade with China and Japan.. Trade with China did not resume after WWII until 1971. As green tea was produced predominantly in China and Japan, this left black tea from India to satisfy the US market. Current tea consumption in the United States is 85% iced tea and still overwhelmingly black.
As loose leaf tea becomes easier for the US consumer to get and consumer awareness of options increases, the growth in the specialty loose leaf market will mirror that of coffee and wine bringing a large variety of tea to market. I am looking forward to having more options in the high quality tea market, are you?
Smith, A., & Kraig, B. (2013). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Walsh, J. M. (1892). Tea – Its History and Mystery. Philadelphia: Henry T. Coates & Co.