GUEST COMMENTATOR: Jordan Russo
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Exceeding fine Hyson Tea.”
In addition to “Water Bread” and “superfine Flour in barrels,” Benfield and Jones advertised “two chests of exceeding fine Hyson Tea.” T.H. Breen states, “Perhaps the central item in this rapidly changing consumer society was tea. In the early decades of the eighteenth century, tea began to appear in the homes of wealthier Americans.” Tea was a drink that elite colonists socialized over. Moreau de Saint-Méry, a foreign visitor to Philadelphia in the 1790s, wrote, “The whole family is united at tea, to which friends, acquaintances, and even strangers are invited.” Drinking tea united and brought people together, allowing them to get to know each other better. According to Carla Olson Gade’s summary on Colonial Quills, “Obviously, young men and women enjoyed the sociability of teatime, for it provided an ideal occasion to get acquainted.”
It is also interesting that this advertisement was promoting their goods to be sold to retailers. Benfield and Jones wanted retailers to buy their goods so they could sell them to others. The customers that bought the tea from Benfield and Jones may not have been the end users.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Benfield and Jones did indeed appear to be wholesalers rather than retailers, though some colonial firms did pursue both. This advertisement suggests that they specialized in moving high volumes of staples and supplies (bread, flour, iron, and tea), for which they accepted cash “at a very low advance” or “exchange[d] for coarse goods” that they then likely sold and exported in bulk.
Benfield and Jones provided tea to the Charleston market, but colonial consumers could not enjoy the social rituals Jordan describes without also purchasing a variety of other accouterments and supplies. Drinking tea practically demanded sugar. It also required a variety of equipment: tea sets that included cups, saucers, tea kettles, covered sugar bowls, creampots, hot-water urns, salvers, trays, and canisters for dried tea leaves. Drinking tea required purchasing more than just the tea itself.
As Jordan notes, tea was initially a luxury enjoyed by wealthy colonists, but over time it gained widespread popularity. Colonists of every station and background developed a taste for tea, often considering it just as much a staple as the bread and flour listed alongside it in Benfield and Jones’ advertisement. This prompted a further expansion of consumer activity as colonists purchased tea equipage of various styles and made of various materials. Fashions changed and consumers opted to display and use tea sets that reflected their own tastes, wealth, and status.
In providing tea to the Charleston market, Benfield and Jones distributed an important commodity, one that became an emblem of eighteenth-century consumer culture. Yet they sold only one component necessary for the extensive practices and rituals of socializing over tea: the tea itself. Other advertisers promoted an array of additional items necessary for drinking tea that colonists would have imagined while reading Benfield and Jones’ advertisement, products that may not be as readily apparent to modern readers accustomed to modern convenience and methods of preparing tea.
 T.H. Breen, “An Empire of Goods: The Anglicization of Colonial America, 1690-1776,” Journal of British Studies 25, no. 4 (October 1986): 488.