GUEST CURATOR: Julia Tardugno
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“The very best of BOHEA TEA.”
This advertisement immediately struck me because tea was such an important symbol during the time of the American Revolution. Parliament’s taxed tea was through the Indemnity Act of 1767, one of the notorious Townshend Acts. When the Townshend Acts went into place, the colonists were so furious that they resorted to nonimportation agreements in which they no longer purchased goods from Britain. On October 28, 1767, a town meeting took place at Faneuil Hall in Boston to discuss the Townshend Acts and their negative impact on the colonies. A broadside distributed after the meeting said that colonists decided to meet “That some effectual Measures might be agreed upon to promote Industry, Economy, and Manufacturers; thereby to prevent the unnecessary Importation of European Commodities, which threaten the Country with Poverty and Ruin.” This petition to start the nonimportation agreements was voted on unanimously and the residents of Boston listed the items that they vowed not to purchase imported goods. Instead, they would encourage “Manufacturers” in the colonies. That included “Labrador tea.” The colonists felt strongly about implementing the nonimportation agreements at first, but they put an end to the boycotts in 1770 after Parliament repealed most of the taxes on imports. The tax on tea remained. The colonists canceled the nonimportation agreements two years prior to William Elliot’s advertisement about Bohea tea, a popular consumer good. That did not mean that colonists stopped worrying about the taxes on tea. In 1773, they participated in the Boston Tea Party. Tea became an even more important symbol of the American Revolution as a result of the Boston Tea Party, but that is not the whole story.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
William Elliot was not alone in marketing tea to readers of the New-Hampshire Gazette in the spring of 1772. Jeremiah Libbey listed tea alongside two other beverages, coffee and chocolate, in an advertisement that also promoted an “Assortment of ENGLISH GOODS.” In another advertisement, David Cutler and J. Cutler provided an extensive list of their “General Assortment of GOODS that came in the last Ships from London.” The groceries they stocked included “Bohea Tea, Coffee, [and] Chocolate.” John Penhallow published an even more extensive catalog of “GOODS … Just Imported from LONDON.” Like his competitors, he sold “choice Bohea Tea.” Colonizers in Portsmouth and other towns had plenty of options when it came to purchasing tea. Throughout the colonies, merchants and shopkeepers supplemented their other inventory with tea.
The ubiquity of tea makes it an ideal commodity for examining a variety of interlocking topics in my Revolutionary America class. We discuss trade and commerce; consumer culture and rituals that helped build a sense of community; and boycotts, politics, and protests. I introduce students to the traditional narrative about tea and taxes, but we also take into consideration details that complicate that narrative. As Julia notes, colonizers rescinded the nonimportation agreements when Parliament repealed the duties on most imported goods even though the tax on tea remained in place. Some colonizers advocated for holding firm until they achieved all of their goals, but most merchants wanted to resume trade and bring an end to the disruption in transatlantic commerce. We examine how women participated in politics as consumers, especially as consumers of tea, when they made decisions about whether they would purchase imported goods. In October 1774, women in Edenton, North Carolina, formalized their position by signing a petition in which they resolved to boycott tea and other imported goods. In response, engraver Philip Dawe created a print that critiqued those women who did not seem to know their place … and, by extension, their male relations incapable of exercising proper authority within their households. We also read Peter Oliver’s account of the “Origins & Progress” of the American Revolution, including his accusation that women devised various strategies for gathering together to drink tea and cheating on the boycott. In addition, we discuss T.H. Breen’s descriptions of colonizers destroying tea at public gatherings and enforcing compliance with boycotts. Many students initially view tea as a quaint vestige of the eighteenth century, associating it primarily with the Boston Tea Party. Throughout the semester, we repeatedly return to tea so they gain a better understanding of the intersection of colonial culture and politics during the era of the American Revolution.