GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“BEST London BOHEA TEA”
In this advertisement Henry Appleton promoted “BEST London BOHEA TEA.” According to Rachel Conroy at the Museum of Wales, “In the eighteenth century tea-drinking was a highly fashionable activity for the wealthy upper classes.” The idea that a drink initially denoted the elite is not surprising due to the exotic nature of the beverage. Tea was transported from China to England and then to the colonies, a notably long haul. Conroy also states “The most common tea was Bohea, a type of black tea.”
In “Baubles of Britain,” T.H. Breen indicates that tea drinking eventually became popular among a wide variety of social classes. As the eighteenth century progressed, more social classes also began to consume the beverage. To further demonstrate consumption across the classes, Breen brings up the political ramifications of the tea being sold. It became a major “bone of contention” for the colonists because of the new importation taxes on the product as part of the Townsend Acts in 1767. This led to one of the largest boycotts throughout the thirteen colonies and eventually to the dumping of tea into Boston Harbor. This advertisement examplifies how this product was sold far and wide in the colonies.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
In addition to tea, Henry Appleton sold a variety of grocery items and “West India Good[s]” at “his Shop next Door to Robert Traill” in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Although he marketed the tea most vigorously – listing it first, describing it as “BEST,” and inserting a nota bene promising that “The above Tea is warranted of the best kind” – Appleton also sold “Loaf Sugar.” Consumers used sugar for many purposes. Sweetening tea was one of them, making it natural that the shopkeeper advertised the two together.
Jonathan mentions the political controversies that coalesced around tea in the decade before the Revolution. Colonists objected to new taxes and enforcement mechanisms, decrying their loss of liberty at the hands of Parliament. More than any other commodity, historians use tea to tell a powerful story of the imperial crisis that culminated in the American Revolution. In recent years many scholars have widened the scope of that story, effectively linking tea to other commodities associated with it, especially the “Loaf Sugar” that Appleton simultaneously peddled.
Consumers in colonial New Hampshire were fairly far removed from slavery practiced on the same scale as in the Chesapeake, Lower South, and Caribbean. A relatively small number of slaves lived in their towns (including “A likely Negro GIRL” offered for sale in an advertisement in the column to the right of Appleton’s notice), but the economy of colonial New Hampshire did not rely on the cultivation of staple crops on plantations, cultivation made possible by the productive labor of slaves.
Even though that was the case, colonists in New Hampshire were bound up in the system of slavery through commerce and their choices as consumers. The sugar they used to sweeten the tea they coveted resulted from the involuntary labor of enslaved men and women on faraway plantations. The social rituals that emanated from purchasing tea and ancillary goods, such as elaborate tea sets, rested on a foundation of enslaved labor in the cultivation of sugar. Even as Americans clamored for liberty in the face of Parliament meddling in colonial commerce, their consumer choices maintained an economic system that denied liberty to enslaved men and women who produced some of their most valued commodities.