LiberTEA

With hindsight, the events of history often seem inevitable.  America was destined for independence from Britain.  All colonists were patriots who saw themselves as a nation and a people separate from the mother country.  This was absolutely not the case.  Colonists’ views on the appropriateness of independence evolved with events.  Over time, British identity gave way to American identity.

US and UK flags

The American Stars and Stripes and British Union Jack, the present-day flags of the United States and the United Kingdom. Credit: Hellerick / Wikipedia

We have written several blog posts about how colonists, including members of the Washington family, clung to their Englishness.  They expressed this identity through Westerwald mugs emblazoned with ‘G.R.’ for Georgius Rex in homage to three British kings named George, including George III who would be the foe of the American independence movement. They expressed their English identity through pipe bowls emblazoned with the British royal coat of arms.  Even as protests against their lack of representation in Parliament increased, colonists still hung onto their English roots through, in the Washingtons’ case, wearing cuff links emblazoned with an image of King William III, who “came to represent the right of subjects to resist a king who was abusing power.”

The shift from a British identity to an American identity took time as colonists gave up aspects of British culture while they resisted, first, governmental overreach and, then, ultimately embraced full national independence.

Tea was one aspect of English culture given up as a political act to protest British rule and to show support for the American cause.  Abstention from tea drinking began with the Tea Act of 1773.  Parliament passed the Tea Act to bailout the financially troubled East India Company (EIC).[1]  The government told the Company that it could ship tea directly to the colonies, duty-free.  The EIC could get rid of loads of tea piling up in their London storerooms.  Colonists could get tea that was cheaper than the illegal stuff smuggled in.  Everyone should have been happy.  But everyone wasn’t.  The tea the Company sold to the colonists was to be taxed under the Townshend Acts.  If colonists purchased it, they indirectly accepted Parliament’s right to tax them without representation.[2]

Tea became an emblem of British oppression and a boycott of the drink became a revolutionary act.  John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that “Tea must be universally renounced and I must be weaned, and the sooner the better.”  Rejecting British culture, patriotic associations gave less than hospitable “tea parties” in Boston and Yorktown for merchants who continued to sell the politically incorrect brew.[3]  Less well-known was a tea party of sorts organized by the women of Edenton, North Carolina, who came together on October 25, 1774 and pledged to boycott tea and other British goods.  Whether politicians or housewives, Americans up and down the colonies joined these protests and vowed to never serve tea in their homes.[4]

A Society of Patriotic Ladies

“A society of patriotic ladies, at Edenton in North Carolina” printed for R. Sayer & J. Bennett on March 25, 1775 in London. This satirical print shows American women pledging to boycott English tea in response to Continental Congress resolution in 1774 to boycott English goods. Credit: Library of Congress.

By at least May of 1774, Virginians near Fredericksburg had given up their tea.   Philip Vickers Fithian, tutor to the Carter family at Nomini Hall, visited some neighbors on May 19 and noted in his diary that he “Drank Coffee at four, they are now too patriotic to use tea.”[5] Indeed, as Fithan indicates and as we’ve previously explored in this post, coffee became Americans’ go-to substitute for tea.

Fithian did not seem all that enthusiastic about the tea boycott, however. A few months later, he got very excited when “Something in our palace this Evening, very merry happened—Mrs Carter made a dish of Tea. At Coffee, she sent me a dish—& the Colonel both ignorant—He smelt, sipt—look’d—At last with great gravity he asks what’s this?—Do you ask Sir—Poh!—And out he throws it splash a sacrifice to Vulcan” [meaning the Roman god of fire, of course, and not Spock’s homeworld on Star Trek].[6]  While “the Colonel” Robert Carter III “did not volunteer for political or military service during the Revolution. He did, however, sign the Virginia loyalty oath and supported the non-importation agreements drawn up by the First Continental Congress.”  He patriotically did not partake of the British beverage but Fithian clearly missed his tea.

For those who disliked coffee or simply still wanted tea, there was a black market to provide one with British tea but there were also American-grown substitutes that adhered to the boycott and came to be known as “Liberty Teas.”  Dr. Leonard Perry, extension professor at the University of Vermont, provides an excellent summary of tea substitutes used by early Americans during their tea boycotts…

“One of the most common substitutes was the native American shrub New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), also known then as Indian tea or Walpole tea.  Leaves of raspberry also were commonly used for these colonial teas, as were sweet fern and spicebush. Bark from some trees such as sassafras and willow were used.

Common flowers used for the Liberty teas were sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora), red clover, chamomile, and violets.  Leaves of herbaceous plants such as bergamot (bee balm or Oswego tea), lemon balm, and mints were brewed as many are today.  Many herbs were brewed in the 18th century including parsley, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, and sage. Native Americans introduced the colonists to many of these plants which they often brewed to use medicinally.  Even some fruits were used in colonial teas, including those of dried strawberries, blueberries and apples.  Rosehips, rich in vitamin C and used today in teas, were used then as well.  “Indian lemonade tea” was made from boiling the berries of the red sumac.

Often ingredients were combined, such as a common tea recipe of that time including equal parts sweet goldenrod, betony, clover, and New Jersey tea.”

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus). Credit: John Oyston / Wikipedia.

Tea would return to American tables following the successful War for Independence.  There are several receipts from the 1790s that show Betty Washington Lewis purchasing tea, including a type of imported Chinese green tea, at Kenmore.  But, for the most part, these imported teas as well as the herbal liberty teas were ultimately eclipsed by coffee, which became, like tea for the British, the drink synonymous with American culture.

Betty Lewis receipt for tea copy

Receipt showing Betty Washington Lewis’ purchase of some “young hyson tea,” a type of Chinese green tea, on February 8, 1797.

Visit Historic Kenmore on Saturday, May 4 for “Tea and Tour: The Ladies of Kenmore” focusing on the many generations of ladies who have called Kenmore home! Enjoy Kenmore tea and gingerbread while experiencing eighteenth-century tea service first hand. See the first floor of the mansion, learning the history of the grand 1775 home through vignettes, and meet a few of the extraordinary ladies of Kenmore along the way as part of this dramatic tour.

Event admission is $20 Adults and $10 under 17.  Reservations required and there are only a very few spaces left. For more information and reservations, please call (540) 370-0732 ext. 24 or email events@gwffoundation.org.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

 

[1] Breen, T. H., The Marketplace of Revolution, Oxford: University Press, 2004: 298-301.

[2] Breen, 235-239.

[3] Clark, F, “Chocolate and other Colonial Beverages” in Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage, 2009 (eds L. E. Grivetti and H.-Y. Shapiro), John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ: 276.

[4] Root, Waverly et al., Eating in America, New York: Ecco, 1981: 127

[5] Diary entry, May 19 1774 by Philip Vickers Fithian, Journal & Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian, 1773-1774: A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion, Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg, 1943, 147.

[6] Diary entry, September 26, 1774 by Fithian, 257.

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Coffee: A Revolutionary Drink

The history of coffee is long and complex and can never be fully explored in a single blog post, however, because of my admiration for the caffeinated beverage I wanted to learn how the colonist utilized coffee.  Fortunately, in the collections at Kenmore, we not only have a selection of 18th century coffeepots and cups but also original records for coffee purchases made by the Lewis family.  These objects give us a tangible record of coffee in the colonial home but this post will also explore how the drink became popular in the colonies, how the colonials made their morning brew, and how a tax made coffee a revolutionary drink earning it the nickname “King of the American breakfast table”.[1]

ms 856 copy

Betty Washington Lewis made three purchases of coffee in January and March 1796.

The Basics

Coffee plants are flowering shrubs that produce berries which are harvested, peeled, dried, roasted, ground and, eventually, brewed to produce the cup of dark brown liquid that helps most of us get through the day.[2]

Coffee, tea, and chocolate were introduced into North America almost simultaneously in the later part of the 1600s.[3]  By the mid-1700s, coffee and tea were becoming staple drinks for early Americans. [4]

The easiest way to get a cup of coffee in Colonial America was the coffee-house, which usually was a mixture of café, tavern, and inn.  Coffee-houses tended to offer more than just a strong cup of java and had ale, wine, spirits, or even tea available. [5]  Even Fredericksburg had its own coffeehouse.  As local historian Paula Felder notes, “In 1751, Charles Julian of Norfolk, a baker, opened a coffee house and was granted an ordinary license.  When he joined the new Masonic lodge in 1756, the meetings were held ‘at brother Julian’s’ until the lodge meetings were moved to the new Town House in 1763.  The coffee house remained a prominent gathering place for many years. A ceremonial luncheon was given here in honor of George Washington in February 1784 on his first visit after the Revolutionary War.”  However, coffee-houses were not always a socially acceptable place for everyone. Nor were they always the most convenient way to get that much sought after cup of java.  As the desire for coffee heightened, it made its way into the homes showing up on the breakfast table, in-between meals, and after dinners.[6]

How to Make a Colonial Cup

In the 1700s, when you purchased coffee from your local merchant it most likely was in the form of bags of green beans.  The burden of turning those beans into the perfect cup of coffee was on the consumer.

Roasting

Domestick Coffee Man

Title page of Humphrey Broadbent’s The Domestick Coffee-man published in 1722.

The first step was roasting the green beans to a dark brown. Humphrey Broadbent, writer of The Domestick Coffee-man, explained how to properly roast the beans, “Particular Care ought to be taken in Roasting the Berries, for without doubt in that, Depends much of goodness of them Berries.  I hold it best to Roast them in an Iron Vessel full of little Holes, made to turn on a Spit over a Charcoal Fire, keeping them continually Turning, and sometimes Shaking them that they do not Burn, and when they are taken out of the Vessel, spread’em on some Tin or Iron Plate ‘till the Vehemency of the Heat is Vanished.”[7]

If you had a more primitive set up and didn’t have a roasting spit you could place them in a frying pan, known as a spider, or iron kettle in the hearth.  When the beans are heated, they slowly turn yellow, release steam, expand in size, and darken.  Once they begin to crackle, they are ready to be cooled.[8]

Grinding

By the early 18th century in Europe, coffee grinders were quite common and inexpensive.  These grinders were based on the original spice grinder. However, in the colonies, most people used a mortar and pestle to pound the beans into a coarse powder.[9]

Brewing

There were two different methods of brewing that were popular: boiling and infusion.  Broadbent helpfully explained the difference to the novice coffee drinker who wished to become a connoisseur.

“The common way of making this Liquor, is, to put an Ounce of Powder, to a Quart of Water and so let it Boil till the Head is Boyled down; but this is a very silly way…if Coffee be but very little too much Boiled it is Spoiled, and grows either Flat or Sour, but if by long Custom you will not part from your Boiling, let it not Boil above a Minute.”[10]

Broadbent much preferred infusion, stating “Put the Quantity of Powder you intend, into your pot then pour Boiling-Hot Water upon the aforsaid Powder, and let if stand to infuse Five Minutes before the Fire.”[11]

To get that lovely cup of coffee in the 1700s, you just needed to purchase the beans, roast them, grind them, and then boil them.

Equipment

As the drinking of coffee moved from the coffee-house to people’s homes, a group of tableware became associated with the drink.  Central to this tableware was the coffeepot and cups.  One of the earliest representations of these items is found in a 1674 woodcut showing an English coffeehouse where men are drinking from porcelain cups without handles and coffee is being served from a metal or earthenware jug.  Later, a print from 1710 shows coffeepots with a long straight spout and small annular porcelain bowls cups.[12]  Initially, these coffees pots and cups looked quite similar to the ones used to serve tea but, over time, they began to differ in appearance to what we today would recognize as two distinct serving sets.

The prevailing but inconclusive theory as to why the two pots changed shape is that the countries of origin of each drink played a part in the style of the tablewares.  Essentially, coffeepots and cups resembled those used in Arabic coffee houses while tea pots and tea cups resembled those used in Chinese tea rituals.[13]

Revolutionary Coffee

We know how colonial Americans made coffee and how they drank coffee but how did coffee become a revolutionary drink that Americans, who were once English, came to prefer over tea, Britain’s national drink?  The answer, in a word, is taxes.  The Tea Act of 1773 was created by the British government to bailout the financially troubled East India Company (EIC). [14]  The government told the Company that they could ship tea directly to the colonies, duty-free.  The EIC would get rid of loads of tea that was piling up in their London storerooms.  Colonists would get tea that was cheaper than the illegal stuff smuggled in.  Everyone should have been happy.  But everyone wasn’t.  The tea the Company was selling to the colonists would still be taxed under the Townshend Acts.  If the colonists purchased it, they would be indirectly accepting Parliament’s right of taxation without representation.[15]

Tea became an emblem of British oppression and a boycott of the drink became a revolutionary act.  Rejecting British culture, patriotic associations gave less than hospitable “tea parties” in Boston and Yorktown for merchants who continued to sell the politically incorrect brew.[16]  Whether politicians or housewives, Americans up and down the colonies joined the boycott and vowed to never serve tea in their homes.[17]

A Society of Patriotic Ladies

“A society of patriotic ladies, at Edenton in North Carolina” printed for R. Sayer & J. Bennett on March 25, 1775 in London. This satirical print shows American women pledging to boycott English tea in response to Continental Congress resolution in 1774 to boycott English goods. Credit: Library of Congress.

As John Adams wrote to his wife, “Tea must be universally renounced and I must be weaned, and the sooner the better.”[18]  However, the colonists still needed their caffeine and coffee stepped up to do its patriotic duty.  Consumption of coffee soared and played a small role in the creation of a new American identity. More than a drink, it became a sign of independence and unity in the midst of revolution and upheaval.[19]

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

Sources

Breen, T. H. The Marketplace of Revolution. Oxford: University Press, 2004

Broadbent, Humphery. The Domestick Coffee-Man, Shewing The True Way of Preparing and Making of Chocolate, Coffee, and Tea. London, 1722

Clark, F. (2009) Chocolate and other Colonial Beverages, in Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage (eds L. E. Grivetti and H.-Y. Shapiro), John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ, USA

Felder, Paula. “George Washington’s Fredericksburg: The Fredericksburg Scene in 1755,” Map in the Free Lance-Star, July 3, 2004.

Goodwin, Mary. “The Coffee House Historical Report, Block 17, Building 34: The Coffee-House of the 17th and 18th Centuries,” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series – 0050 (1956): http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/View/index.cfm?doc=ResearchReports%5CRR0050.xml#p12

Jamieson, Ross W. “The Essence of Commodification: Caffeine Dependencies in Early Modern World.” Journal of Social History, Vol 35, No2 (2001): 269-294

 

Regelski, Christina, “The Revolution of American Drinking,” http://ushistoryscene.com/article/american-drinking/

Root, Waverly et al., Eating in America (New York: Ecco, 1981)

Smith, Andrew F., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 2013, p 266

Ukers, William H. All About Coffee. England: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1922

Ukers, W.H. “The Early Preparation of Coffee.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol 2 (1919): 353-356

Witkowski, Terrence H. “Colonial Consumers in Revolt: Buyer Values and Behavior during Nonimportation Movement, 1764-1776,”Journal of Consumer Research Vol. 16, No. 2 (Sep., 1989), pp. 216-226

[1] Ukers, 107

[2] Ibid, 133

[3] Ibid, 105

[4] Regelski, http://ushistoryscene.com/article/american-drinking/

[5] Goodwin, http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/View/index.cfm?doc=ResearchReports%5CRR0050.xml#p12

[6] Felder, GW’s Fredericksburg; Ukers, 689

[7] Broadbent, p 8-9

[8] Ukers, “Early Preparation of Coffee”, 354

[9] Ukers, 695

[10] Broadbent, p 11

[11] Broadbent, p 11

[12] Jamieson, 285

[13] Ukers, 602; Jamieson, 285

[14] Breen, T.H. pg 298-301

[15] Ibid, pg 235-239

[16] Clark, p 276

[17] Root, p 127

[18] Smith, p 266

[19] Witkowski, p 218