The History of Tea


The Tea Trade

In the nineteenth century, two important events altered the tea-trade landscape. First, China's isolationism and trade limits prompted the East India Company to look to India for tea. Tea was soon growing in Assam and Darjeeling, giving tea lovers new flavors of tea to enjoy. The second event was the repealing of the Navigation Acts in 1849, which finally ended the East India Company's monopoly on Eastern trade.

These new resources combined with a newly freed market led to a flurry of ships racing each other to get to India and China and back to London's tea exchange. A new type of ship, the clipper ship, was designed to speed passage around the world. These light, narrow ships could navigate the waters at record speeds. In parlors and coffeehouses throughout England and America, people would bet on which ship would return in the fastest time. The new market opened the door for tea to gain popularity around the world.

Another Golden Age for Tea

By the mid-nineteenth century, tea had resumed its place as a staple at English tables. Following Queen Victoria's lead, British citizens elevated tea drinking to an art form. Afternoon tea became an event, and tearooms sprang up across England. At the turn of the twentieth century, tea dances became can't-miss events for Britain's upper and middle classes. During World War II, tea was such a critical staple that it was stocked in 500 places throughout the country to guarantee the supply would remain constant and not be destroyed by German bombing raids.

In America, tea experienced a similar golden age that continues to this day. One hot day at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, tea plantation owner Richard Blechyden realized he wasn't going to get any takers for his free samples of hot tea. To avoid wasting his stock, Blechyden iced his tea, and the beverage was a hit. Today, 85 percent of the tea consumed in the United States is iced tea, according to the Tea Association of the United States.

In 1908, four years after the creation of iced tea, New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan inadvertently invented tea bags. As a cost-cutting measure, he wrapped his tea samples in small silk bags to send to prospective customers. He had no idea that they would steep the entire sample, but they thought that's what he had intended. His customers were sorely disappointed when their orders did not arrive packaged in the little silk bags, and they clamored for them. The cost of packaging the tea in silk would have been prohibitive, so Sullivan used gauze instead. His idea certainly caught on: Today, 60 percent of all tea in America is brewed from a tea bag.

ADDITIONAL CREDITS: Rebecca D. Williams, Michele Price Mann

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