GUEST CURATOR: Sean Sullivan
What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?
“BOHEA TEA in large Chests, HYSON TEA in small Chests or Cannisters.”
Tea was an established part of life in the colonial America, consumed both in metropolitan centers along the coast as well as further inland, nearly ubiquitous across the British colonies. This advertisement from the Pennsylvania Chronicle mentioned two varieties, Bohea and Hyson. Bohea was a more expensive black tea while hyson was a cheaper and more common green variant. However, savvy merchants likely would not have hindered themselves with selling one variety and thus limiting their potential clientele. By importing both varieties of tea, Christopher and Charles Marshall appealed to the widest market available, increasing both potential profits and their presence in the sphere of public business. Such an action would be in the best interests of any aspiring entrepreneur, as the tea market in colonial America was massive not only economically but, as Rodris Roth argues, as a part of the wider culture. Colonial customs were highly reflective of trends prominent in Europe, and the consumption of tea was among the most significant of these trends. By the middle of the eighteenth century, tea had become the social lubricant of choice. Anyone in the mercantile realm who could find a steady market for tea would therefore be almost guaranteed a lucrative business.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Tea was indeed a major commodity consumed throughout the British colonies in the eighteenth century. Many assume that tea was a luxury in colonial America, but that interpretation reflects its position when it was first introduced to consumers rather than the position it eventually held in the marketplace and in the social lives of colonists. As Rodris Roth reports, “During the first half of the eighteenth century the limited amount of tea, available at prohibitively high prices, restricted its use to a proportionately small segment of the population. About mid-century, however, tea was beginning to be drunk by more and more people, as supplies increased and costs decreased, due in part to the propaganda and merchandising efforts of the East India Company. The expanding market for tea placed it at the center of the consumer revolution that took place throughout the British Atlantic world in the eighteenth century.
Indeed, tea might be considered emblematic of colonists participating in the consumer revolution since consuming it required acquiring a variety of other goods, some of them for its preparation and some considered necessary for the social rituals associated with consuming the beverage. Shopkeepers advertised and colonists purchased elaborate tea sets that included cups, saucers, teapots, sugar bowls, containers for cream or milk, waste bowls, tongs, strainers, canisters for storing tea, spoons, and other items. Yet the equipage did not end there. Depending on their means, colonists also bought tea tables and chairs as well as trays and tablecloths. Whether made of metal or imported porcelain, the popular styles for tea sets changed over the years, just as the fashions for garments shifted. Merchants and shopkeepers noted such changes in their advertisements, spurring potential customers to make additional purchases and further fueling the consumer revolution. Yet consuming tea contributed to importing other goods, especially sugar. No matter how genteel the setting for socializing while sipping tea, colonists were enmeshed in networks of exchange that depended on the involuntary labor of enslaved men and women who worked on sugar plantations in the Caribbean.
Today’s advertisement for tea may appear rather simple at first glance, yet upon closer examination it tells a much larger story about the consumption and culture in eighteenth-century America. For even more information, see Rodris Roth’s “Tea-Drinking in Eighteenth-Century America: Its Etiquette and Equipage,” available in its entirety via Project Gutenberg.
Rodris Roth, “Tea Drinking in Eighteenth-Century America: Its Etiquette and Equipage,” in Material Life in America, 1600-1860, ed. Robert Blair St. George (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988), 442.