In honor of Women's History Month, I'm taking a closer look at the oral tradition that surrounds this 18th century tea caddy. It belonged to the wealthy and powerful Cushing Family who lived on King Street (now State Street), just down the street from the Old State House. Thomas Cushing (1725-1788) was an influential moderate politician both before and after the Revolution. His wife Deborah (née Fletcher) (1727-1790) is said to have asked him to take the tea contained in this tea caddy and dump it into the harbor on the day after the Boston Tea Party. Cushing, being somewhat more staid than his wife, refused. Mrs. Cushing put on her bonnet, walked straight down King Street to Long Wharf, and dumped the two different types of tea contained in the tea caddy into the harbor.
We have no way of verifying if these events actually took place, but the story is so charming that I hope that it is. The idea of the respectable middle-aged wife of a politician marching down King Street in broad daylight to add her small amount of tea to the protest (not forgetting to put on her bonnet) speaks to her strength, agency, and bravery - she didn’t feel the need to conduct her protest in costume or under the cover of darkness!
We gain further insight into Mrs. Cushing’s character in this excerpt from a letter that Mr. Cushing wrote to her from Philadelphia in 1774:
“The Farmer says, if it were customary to choose women into the assembly, he should be heartily for choosing you Speaker of the House – they all wish to see you there”.
Whether or not the story of the tea caddy is apocryphal, it tells us something about how she was perceived. The sense that one gets from both this story and the letter is of an active, opinionated, politically savvy woman – although she isn’t included in the history books, because we care for her tea caddy, we help to keep her story alive.
By Sira Dooley Fairchild, Collections Manager