Women's Place in Tea History

By Eve Hill

Elizabeth Ruby, proprietor of THE TEA ROOM of Savannah, made a particularly profound pronouncement when she was delivering a speech at a major gathering of tea people. Liz said "Tea is not an estrogen beverage."

She was making the point that tea rooms and other places that specialize in serving tea should not become so feminized in atmosphere and decor that men could feel uncomfortable in them. She has lived this dictum in creating her own business and has decorated her tea room in a Charles Rennie MacIntosh style that women find inviting and men find comfortable. She even has a special room called "The Library" which can be reserved for male gatherings.

While Liz is making an effort to include males in tea drinking outside the home in the U.S., much of the rest of the world has the reverse view. Men drink tea in public places more often, women drink it at home.

Like much of written history, the history of women's roles in tea commerce have often been downplayed. Other than the frequently repeated tale of Anna, Duchess of Bedford, conceiving the idea of afternoon tea in England, most of us don't think about the feminine contribution to the tea business. Men were the principal participants in the world business and commerce.

At a time when women often could not even hold title to property in their own name, there were some who were notable in the history of tea in the western world.

Catherine of Braganza was Portugese and when her husband became Charles II and took his place on the throne of England, she brought tea with her to the court of St. James. This Queen was seen enjoying tea and the English soon started to import tea. It could be said without too much argument that tea came to England because a woman set the fashion.

In the early years of the eighteenth century there were two tea businesses founded that involved successful women in a dynastic family line.

One of the first female tea merchants was Maria Tewkes of York. She was single and apparently single-minded, for her firm was quite successful due to what must have been an extraordinary determination for the time, 1725. A nephew inherited the business when she died and it went on for many generations of the family. The Twining family had a similar situation, for after founder Thomas Twining died, his widow Mary Little Twining kept the business going and indeed flourishing for almost two decades, passing it on to her son Richard.

A lady who loved her tea but loved her liberty more was Penelope Barker of Edenton, North Carolina. In the autumn of 1774 she organized a group of fifty one socially prominent women to sign a pledge not to drink tea until "All acts which tend to enslave our Native Country shall be repealed..." and thus organized another of the "Tea Parties" which fired the American Revolution. There is still a large commemorative monument in Edenton that has an oversized teapot as part of it.

Of course, we must give credit to Anna, Duchess of Bedford, who is considered the inventor of the afternoon teatime. Her between meals hunger led to what really became an industry, as the afternoon tea became a ritual with the British around the world and trickled down to many cultures.

Running a little tea room became the financial salvation for many a widow or otherwise impecunious woman and a pot of tea kept the wolf from the door. It was a socially acceptable way to make a living and could be done in the home by using a parlor or other entertaining space for it.

Women have had a role in the promotion and history of that most delectable and refreshing beverage throughout its time in the Western world, so raise your cup and salute the women of tea and those of both sexes who enjoy it often.