The Legendary Origins of Tea
The Chinese Influence
The Japanese Influence
Though concerned over developments in America, English tea interests still centered on the product’s source-the Orient. There the trading of tea had become a way of life, developing its own language known as “Pidgin English”. Created solely to facilitate commerce, the language was composed of English, Portuguese, and Indian words all pronounced in Chinese. Indeed, the word “Pidgin” is a corrupted form of the Chinese word for “do business”. So dominant was the tea culture within the English speaking cultures that many of these words came to hold a permanent place in our language. “Mandarin” (from the Portuguese “mandar” meaning to order) – the court official empowered by the emperor to trade tea. “Cash” (from the Portuguese “caixa” meaning case or money box)-the currency of tea transactions. “Caddy” (from the Chinese word for one pound weight)-the standard tea trade container. “Chow” (from the Indian word for food cargo)-slang for food.
Not only was language a problem, but so was the currency. Vast sums of money were spent on tea. To take such large amounts of money physically out of England would have financially collapsed the country and been impossible to transport safely half way around the world. With plantations in newly occupied India, the John Company saw a solution. In India they could grow the inexpensive crop of opium and use it as a means of exchange. Because of its addictive nature, the demand for the drug would be lifelong, insuring an unending market. Chinese emperors tried to maintain the forced distance between the Chinese people and the “devils”. But disorder in the Chinese culture and foreign military might prevented it. The Opium Wars broke out with the English ready to go to war for free trade (their right to sell opium). By 1842 England had gained enough military advantages to enable her to sell opium in China undisturbed until 1908.
The first three American millionaires, T. H. Perkins of Boston, Stephen Girard of Philadelphia, and John Jacob Astor of New York, all made their fortunes in the China trade. America began direct trade with China soon after the Revolution was over in 1789. America’s newer, faster clipper ships outsailed the slower, heavier English “tea wagons” that had until then dominated the trade. This forced the English navy to update their fleet, a fact America would have to address in the War of 1812. The new American ships established sailing records that still stand for speed and distance. John Jacob Astor began his tea trading in 1800. He required a minimum profit on each venture of 50% and often made 100%. Stephen Girard of Philadelphia was known as the “gentle tea merchant”. His critical loans to the young (and still weak) American government enabled the nation to re-arm for the War of 1812. The orphanage founded by him still perpetuates his good name. Thomas Perkins was from one of Boston’s oldest sailing families. The Chinese trust in him as a gentleman of his word enabled him to conduct enormous transactions half way around the world without a single written contract. His word and his handshake was enough so great was his honor in the eyes of the Chinese. It is to their everlasting credit that none of these men ever paid for tea with opium. America was able to break the English tea monopoly because its ships were faster and America paid in gold.
By the mid-1800’s the world was involved in a global clipper race as nations competed with each other to claim the fastest ships. England and America were the leading rivals. Each year the tall ships would race from China to the Tea Exchange in London to bring in the first tea for auction. Though beginning half way around the world, the mastery of the crews was such that the great ships often raced up the Thames separated only by minutes. But by 1871 the newer steamships began to replace these great ships.
The Scottish botanist/adventurer Robert Fortune, who spoke fluent Chinese, was able to sneak into mainland China the first year after the Opium War. He obtained some of the closely guarded tea seeds and made notes on tea cultivation. With support from the Crown, various experiments in growing tea in India were attempted. Many of these failed due to bad soil selection and incorrect planting techniques, ruining many a younger son of a noble family. Through each failure, however, the technology was perfected. Finally, after years of trial and error, fortunes made and lost, the English tea plantations in India and other parts of Asia flourished. The great English tea arketing companies were founded and production mechanized as the world industrialized in the late 1880’s.
America stabilized her government, strengthened her economy, and expanded her borders and interests. By 1904 the United States was ready for the world to see her development at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Trade exhibitors from around the world brought their products to America’s first World’s Fair. One such merchant was Richard Blechynden, a tea plantation owner. Originally, he had planned to give away free samples of hot tea to fair visitors. But when a heat wave hit, no one was interested. To save his investment of time and travel, he dumped a load of ice into the brewed tea and served the first “iced tea”. It was (along with the Egyptian fan dancer) the hit of the Fair. Four years later, Thomas Sullivan of New York developed the concept of “bagged tea”. As a tea merchant, he carefully wrapped each sample delivered to restaurants for their consideration. He recognized a natural marketing opportunity when he realized the restaurants were brewing the samples “in the bags” to avoid the mess of tea leaves in the kitchens.
Beginning in the late 1880’s in both America and England, fine hotels began to offer tea service in tea rooms and tea courts. Served in the late afternoon, Victorian ladies (and their gentlemen friends) could meet for tea and conversation. Many of these tea services became the hallmark of the elegance of the hotel, such as the tea services at the Ritz (Boston) and the Plaza (New York). By 1910 hotels began to host afternoon tea dances as dance craze after dance craze swept the United States and England. Often considered wasteful by older people they provided a place for the new “working girl” to meet men in a city, far from home and family. (Indeed, the editor of Vogue once fired a large number of female secretarial workers for “wasting their time at tea dances”).
Tea is more popular than ever in America today. Currently, there is a re-awakening of interest in tea as many Americans seek a more positive, healthy lifestyle. Fine hotels throughout the United States are re-establishing or planning for the first time afternoon tea services.