A Virtual Tour: LiberTEA (Part I)

Social Uses of Tea in Boston

Earlier this month, Robin Donovan, one of our Education Associates, debuted a new special tour at the Old State House. A good deal of research goes into the development of a new tour, and in this post Robin shares her work with our readers, giving a virtual tour to those who can't visit us in person.

Tea caddy, 18th century (0005.1892)

We often look at the Boston Tea Party and wonder: why? What was it about tea that begged it being tossed in the harbor? If your answer is taxes – then yes, that’s technically true. Taxes are what started this whole thing, but why a tax on tea? What role did tea really play in colonial Boston?

Most of us see tea as a niche drink today - we may all know someone who drinks tea pretty much exclusively, but for the most part here in the United States, coffee is the warm beverage that we rely on. In the 1760s, however, that drink was tea. Coffee was available by this point, but tea had managed to ingratiate itself into our culture. We considered tea a part of our identity as British subjects and often had it twice a day – once with breakfast to help wake up and once in the afternoon. Tea was also one of the few non-alcoholic beverages people could drink without fear of falling ill.

Afternoon tea was often had at home, and it was served to any guest who was visiting. Guests were expected to know the social etiquette rules surrounding afternoon tea, which could be confusing for visitors from outside the British Empire. For example, it was expected that guests would place their spoon across the top of their cup to indicate when they had enough tea. However, this subtle gesture was not usually known to all visitors who would continue to drink tea until they were quite full.

Gentlemen could also go out to coffee houses for tea in the afternoon, which had coffee and tea available as well as alcohol. Boston was one of the early adopters of the idea of the coffee house, but the history here is a bit interwoven with what we would more typically call a tavern. Coffee itself did not catch on in popular culture in America, but coffee houses were often credited with being the place where revolutionary ideas and politics were bandied about. This was true in London as well as in the American colonies, as members of the House of Commons had their own coffee house to which they could adjourn while Parliament was in session.

Tea was so widely accepted in the culture here in Boston and the rest of the American colonies that John Adams once even mourned that he and the rest of the colonists would need to be weaned off tea for the revolution to go forward. This was a statement that would resonate through the rest of the war years and into the early beginnings of a new country.

There's much more to this story - in a later post, Robin will explain the economics of tea.