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Robert J Comito

February 4, 2004

Tea Parties

                Tea drinking has long been a part of the American culture but Americans have only created their own tea traditions in the last 100 years.  Tea drinking spread among the British Isles in the 1650s, when the wife of Charles II, Portuguese Catherine de Braganza, popularized among the British royalty.  It was Anna, Duchess of Bedford, whom historians credit with developing the Anglo tea party tradition, in which friends were invited for an afternoon meal of dessert items and tea served in a silver pot.  The focus was on conversation and on refined behavior.  Eventually, foods served with teas became more delicacies such as crumpets and pates.   Soon, the English adopted the Dutch tradition of tea gardens, or outdoor tea soirees with entertainment and food.  Tea became a beverage crossing class lines; both classes drank it and tea gardens encouraged inter-class mingling.  But two different classes of  tea tradition developed.  “High tea” was, ironically, that of the middle and lower classes in which tea was simply served with an afternoon meal, which would include meats, vegetables, and other dinner courses.  “Low tea” involved an upper class tradition focusing more on conversation, manners, and presentation.  Delicate snacks were included rather than a full meal.  The Industrial Revolution accelerated the class-cutting nature of tea, when factory managers encouraged tea drinking to discourage breakfast ale, which was popular among the working class Englishmen and blamed for slowed production and industrial accidents.

                In America, tea fist arrived for sale in large quantities in the late 17th century, but for the most part the American tea tradition introduced little innovation on its own.  In New York, tea gardens first appeared, and they became popular around springs, such as those on New York’s Roosevelt and Chatham streets (today Park Row street).  Within thirty years, tea became a preferred pastime for colonial women, especially among the higher classes.  One significant American innovation came about due to the British policy on tea; laws such as the Navigation acts and later the Townsend Acts required Americans to only buy British tea, and posted a heavy tax on them.  Consequently, a significant smuggling industry developed to feed colonial desires for cheaper teas.  During periods when this was unavailable or when resistance to the British crown was severe (such as following the Intolerable Acts), Americans developed a tradition of herbal teas borrowed from the Native Americans. 

                But the mainly American tea tradition was mostly developed late in American history, mainly thanks to two key innovations.  Perhaps the most influential, iced tea came about in 1904 at the World’s Fair in St.Louis, Missouri.  So at the same annual event at which an American ice cream man had invented the ice cream cone out of necessity (running out of bowls), tea importer Richard Blechynden invented one of the most popular drinks in America today.  The story goes that selling his fine tea from faraway Calcutta and Ceylon, people at the fair had lost interest in hot drinks on an especially blistering day.  To attract these overheated customers, he added ice to his tea, and a tradition was born. A relatively short time later, in 1908, a New York Tea salesman made another contribution.  Seeking a cleaner, neater way to make tea, he came up with the idea of tea bags.  These two preparation innovations drastically revolutionized tea in America; bagged tea became a favorite for hot tea drinkers and iced tea became a very important informal drink.  Soon, the American South assumed the production of tea in America.

                The American tradition in the early 1900s at first followed the Victorian tea service.  “Tea Rooms” and “Tea Courts” became meeting-places for formal tea and conversation. No fine hotel was complete without these tea services (a tradition growing today), as Boston’s Ritz and New York’s Plaza hotels demonstrated.  Embracing new social fads, Americans began throwing tea dances, in which young men and women would meet for a night of dancing, entertainment, and tea.

                Much of the American affinity with tea today is based on the notion of health benefits from drinking tea.  Since the emergence of tea with legendary Chinese Emperor Shen Nong (Shen Nung), tea remained popular because it was believed to be healthy.  In wake of the Progressive Era in the US, health-conscious Americans used it as an enjoyable health remedy.  In recent years, research has connected tea drinking to (among other benefits) decreased incidence of cancer and heart disease.  By the nineties, the American media began giving lots of attention to these benefits, and tea drinking increased.  Another result is that Americans have also turned to a new wave of herbal and green teas said to be even healthier.

                Today, traditional tea use is regionalized.  The South still holds onto the traditional use of tea as a genteel vehicle of social grace and upbringing, much reminiscent of traditional British use.  The East, especially Boston and New York, rely on more of an atmosphere of imperial European tea tradition in its tea houses and tea courts.  Tea on the West has become much more philosophical, taking its roots from the Far East.  One example is the traditional Zen Zoo, which blends Eastern traditions such as Feng Shui and tea, including the Taiwanese concept of “Bubble Tea”.


Podreka, Tomislav. “The Evolution of American Tea Culture”. Jan 1, 2004. Jan 28, 2004


“The Tea Tradition: A History of Tea Time”. Jan 1, 2000. Jan 23, 2004


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