The first recorded drinking of tea is in China, where the earliest records of tea consumption date back to the 10th century BC. It was a common drink during Qin Dynasty (around 200 BC) & became widely popular during Tang Dynasty, when it was spread to nearby Korea & Japan.
Tea, then called cha, was imported to Europe during the Portuguese expansion of the 16th century. Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, wife of England's Charles II, took the tea habit to the court of Great Britain around 1660.
London coffee houses also were responsible for introducing tea to everyday England. One of the 1st coffee house merchants to offer tea was Thomas Garway, who owned an establishment in Exchange Alley in London. He sold both prepared & dry tea to the public as early as 1657.
Three years later he issued a broadsheet advertising tea at £6 and £10 per pound touting its virtues at "making the body active and lusty" & "preserving perfect health until extreme old age."
Tea was an expensive commodity, as were all the items related to its consumption: the tea table, silver, and porcelain. Tea was normally kept locked by the lady of the household.
Charles Philips (British artist, 1703–1747) The Strong Family detail
Portraits of families at tea demonstrated their wealth, domesticity, and genteel informality. Tea-drinking came to epitomise civilized behavior in the eighteenth century.
Tea gained popularity quickly in England's coffee houses, & by 1700, over 500 coffee houses sold it.
The rise in popularity of tea drinking distressed the British tavern owners, as tea cut their sales of ale & gin, & it was bad news for the government, who depended upon a steady stream of revenue from taxes on liquor sales.
As the century progressed, the use of enslaved labor increased the production of tea and sugar to such an extent that it became available to all classes in society.
By 1750, tea had become the favored drink of Britain's lower classes, as well as the wealthy.
A 1676 act taxed tea & required coffee house operators to apply for a license. Failing to curb the popularity of tea, the British government decided to profit from tea.
By the mid 18th-century, the duty on tea had reached an absurd 119%. This heavy taxation had the effect of creating a whole new industry - tea smuggling.
Ships from Holland & Scandinavia brought tea to the British coast, then stood offshore, while smugglers met them unloading their precious cargo in small vessels. The smugglers, often local fishermen, snuck the tea inland through underground passages & hidden paths to special hiding places. One of the favorite hiding places was in the local parish church.
Even smuggled tea remained expensive for the common man; however, and therefore extremely profitable. Many smugglers began to adulterate the tea with other substances, such as willow, licorice, & sloe leaves. Used tea leaves were also redried & added to fresh leaves.
During the 18th century, tea drinking was as popular in Britain’s American colonies as it was in Britain itself. Legally, all tea imported into America had to be shipped from Britain, & all tea imported into Britain had to be shipped in by the East India Company.
However, for most of the 18th century, the East India Company was not allowed to export directly to America. But during the 1770s, the East India Company ran into financial problems: illegal tea smuggling into Britain was vastly reducing the amount of tea being bought from the Company.
Smuggling led to a downturn in its profits, as well as an increase in its stockpile of unsold tea. In an attempt to revive its flagging fortunes & avoid bankruptcy, the Company asked the British government for permission to export tea directly to America, a move that would enable it to get rid of its surplus stock of tea. The Company actually owed the government £1 million, so the government had no desire to let the Company go bankrupt.
Thus in 1773, the Tea Act was passed, granting the Company’s wish, and allowing a duty of 3d per lb to be levied on the exports to America. The Tea Act, passed by Parliament on May 10, 1773, would launch the final spark to the revolutionary movement in Boston. The act was not intended to raise revenue in the American colonies, & imposed no new taxes. It was designed to prop up the East India Company which was floundering financially & burdened with 18 million pounds of unsold tea. This tea was to be shipped directly to the colonies, and sold at a bargain price.
The Townshend Duties were still in place, however, & the radical leaders in America found reason to believe that this act was a maneuver to buy popular support for the taxes already in force. The direct sale of tea, via British agents, would also have undercut the business of local merchants.The colonials were growing increasingly resentful of "taxation without representation."
The British government did not anticipate this being a problem for the colonials. By being exported directly to America, the cost of tea there would actually become cheaper, & 3d per lb was considerably less duty than was paid on tea destined for the British market. But it had underestimated the strength of the American resistance to being taxed at all by Britain. The issue of the taxation in America had been hotly debated for some years.
Many Americans objected on principle to being taxed by a Parliament which did not represent them. Instead, they wanted to raise taxes themselves to fund their own administration. But successive British governments reserved the right to tax the colonies, & various bungled attempts to impose taxation had hardened American opposition. In the later 1760s, opposition took the form of boycotts of taxed goods. As a replacement for them, the Americans either bought smuggled goods or attempted to find substitutes for tea made from native products.
Colonists in Philadelphia & New York turned the tea ships back to Britain. In Charleston, the cargo was left to rot on the docks. In Boston the Royal Governor was stubborn & held the ships in port, where the colonists would not allow them to unload. Cargoes of tea filled the harbor, & the British ship's crews were stalled in Boston looking for work & often finding trouble. This situation lead to the Boston Tea Party.
Ordinarily conservative shippers & shopkeepers were directly impacted by the new law & were vocal in their opposition. Previously, American ships brought much of the tea from England, but that trade was now reserved for the East India Company. The shop owners objected to the new practice of using only selected merchants to sell the tea; many would be excluded from this trade in favor of a new monopoly. The radical patriots found allies in the formerly conservative business community.
Ladies of the gentry class in colonial America did not have the opportunity to attend public meetings, debate, vote, or have a real voice in democracy. Some women, such as Mrs. Charles Carroll & Mrs. William Paca of Annapolis, supported the patriotic cause in other ways. During the years of the American Revolution, these women grew a variety of herbs that replaced English teas. These included varieties of mint, chamomile, rosemary, lemon balm, and valerian root.
Rather than pay tea taxes, even before the Revolution, colonials were looking for tea alternatives, An article in the November 21st, 1768 Boston Gazette advised, "Tea made from a plant or shrub (Ceanothus americanus) grown in Pearsontown about 20 miles from Portland, Maine, was served to a circle of ladies and gentlemen in Newbury Port, who pronounced it nearly, if not quite, its equal in flavor to genuine Bohea [one of three Chinese black teas tossed overboard later in 1773]. So important a discovery claims attention, especially at this crisis. If we have the plant, nothing is wanted but the process of curing it into tea of our own manufacture."
In 1774, Manasseh Cutler wrote of the Liberty Tea called the New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus Americanus) "The leaves of this shrub have been much used by the common people, in some parts of the country, in the room of India tea; and is, perhaps, the best substitute the country affords. They immerse the fresh leaves in a boiling decoction of the leaves and branches of the same shrub, and then dry them with a gentle heat. The tea, when the leaves are cured in this way, has an agreeable taste, and leaves a roughness on the tongue somewhat resembling that of the bohea tea."
Finally at the end of the resulting war with America, in 1784, William Pitt the Younger introduced the Commutation Act, which dropped the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5%, effectively ending smuggling. And tea did return to the New Republic of the United States of America.