April 2001 Issue
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The Things People Said...

by Jane Pettigrew




I view the tea drinking as a destroyer of health, an enfeebler of the frame, an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth and a maker of misery for old age."
     -William Cobbett

Although today we know for certain that tea is good for us, it hasn't always been like that. Over the years, some people have condemned it as poisonous and dangerous stuff; others have praised it as the best possible thing for the health and wealth of any nation.

Our first ideas about tea came from the things said by travelers who had been to China and tasted the beverage there. They passed on their findings from the East - such as the comments of Lu Yu, the Chinese writer who said that tea "tempers the spirits and harmonizes the mind; dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue; awakens thought and prevents drowsiness; lightens and refreshes the body, and clears the perceptive faculties." Exactly what any tea addict would claim for the drink today!

The first comments back in 1600s were generally favorable. The first recorded advert, to appear in London in 1658, told the public that it was "by all physicians approved." And in 1660, Thomas Garway, the first merchant to publicize and sell it from his store in the city of London, wrote fourteen separate clauses on the health benefits of tea and claimed, amongst other things, that "it maketh the Body active and lusty. It helpeth the headach, giddiness and heaviness thereof. It vanquisheth heavy Dreams, easeth the brain and strengtheneth the Memoy"

The English poet, Edmund Waller, obviously found tea helpful when he was working, and wrote:

"The muses friend, Tea, doth our fancy aid, Repress those vapours which our head invade And keep that place of the soul serene."

Positive attitudes continued during the first fifty years or so and in 1699, the Reverend John Ovington wrote an entire Essay upon the Nature and Qualities of Tea in which he proclaimed that tea was excellent against "Diabetes, cholick, stone, gravel [kidney and urinary problems], dropsy, weakness of the sight". He recommended that people should drink tea instead of alcohol because "certainly were the Custom of Drinking it as universal here as it is in the eastern Countries, we should quickly find that Men might be as cheerful with sobriety, and witty without Danger of losing their senses; and that they might even double the days of their natural Life, by converting it all into Enjoyment, exempt from several painful and acute Diseases..."

Tea has always been associated with female chattering and gossip and in the early 18th century, when after-dinner tea drinking had become a feminine ritual, Colley Cibber said, "Tea! Thou soft, thou sober, sage, and venerable liquid, thou female tongue-running, smile-smoothing, heart opening, sink-tipping cordial, to whose glorious insipidity I owe the happiest moments of my life."

In the eighteenth century, things began to change and social commentators were criticizing tea, not as a drink but as an evil social force. In 1757, Jonas Hanway in an extremely damning essay on tea wrote "the use of tea descended to the Pleboean order among us, about the beginning of the century. In 1720, the consumption was so much augmented, that the French began to import considerable quantities of tea into France, and by establishing the trade of running it into this island, have found their profit in our folly ever since." (The tea he refers to here was, of course, smuggled into England so that people could avoid paying the high taxes imposed by the government. Hanway continued "Men seem to have lost their stature, and comliness; and women their beauty. Your very chambermaids have lost their bloom, I suppose by sipping tea." He condemned maids, servants, mechanics, haymakers, men repairing roads, and other laboring people "who lose their time by drinking tea" which he called "an execrable custom". And was outraged that "your servants, down to the very beggars, will not be satisfied unless they consume the produce of the remote country of China."

Hanway felt that the poorer classes should spend their money on bread and other essential foods and not waste their earnings on unnecessary tea. On his travels around the country, he wrote that he had visited the poorest homes and found, "men and women sipping their tea, in the morning or afternoon, and very often both morning and afternoon: those will have tea who have not bread ... misery itself had no power to banish tea, which had frequently introduced that misery." He also blamed tea for the "bad nursing of children" and asked "can any reasonable person doubt that this flatulent liquor shortens the lives of great numbers of people?" It was not so much the tea that he condemned but the cost of the tea and the time taken to brew and drink it.

In 1758, another book followed Hanway¹s line of though. Although The Good and Bad Effects of Tea recommends tea, drunk without milk or sugar, as a medicine, it warned that the beverage was an expense that poorer families, particularly the women, could not afford. "These poor creatures, to be fashionable and imitate their superiors, are neglecting their spinning, knitting, etc. spending what their husbands are labouring hard for; their children are in rags, gnawing a brown crust, while these gossips are canvassing over the affairs of the whole town..." Again, it was not the actual drink that was to blame but the expense and the way it seemed to encourage women to sit and gossip all day!

William Cobbett was equally disapproving. As well as books on domestic economy for the poorer classes, he wrote letters to newspapers and magazines condemning the ridiculous habit of tea drinking and the fact that it had replaced ale and beer. He wrote, "It is notorious that tea has no useful strength in it; and that it contains nothing nutritious; that it, besides being good for nothing, has badness in it, because it is well-known to produce want of sleep in many cases, and in all cases, to shake and weaken the nerves." He worked out to the last penny and the last second what he thought the working classes of Britain spent on their daily indulgence and claimed that they could save a fortune if they drank beer instead! He was vitriolic in his criticism of tea: "I view the tea drinking as a destroyer of health, an enfeebler of the frame, an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth and a maker of misery for old age." Thank goodness not many listened to his ravings!

Fortunately for tea, others were more measured in their opinions. In 1818, a booklet with the title The Lady and Gentleman's Tea Table warned people that "if taken regularly twice a day, and in large quantities, is attended with bad consequences," but reassured readers that "its use after dinner, or eating, is of great service is assisting digestion, and preventing uneasiness which attends a full weakly stomach". It also stated that tea was "reckoned by some to carry its influences to the remotest parts, and prevent arthritic pains".

More positive rhetoric followed in 1875. W.B. Tegetmeier wrote that tea "pleasantly excites the nervous system, increases respiration, and the action of the skin, and tends to quicken digestion. It has a decidedly soothing effect upon the action of the heart, and hence is often advantageously employed in cases of palpitation and headache."

In the latter half of the 19th century, the price of tea dropped and it was becoming more widely available. By then it had really become the drink of the British people. In 1863, the fist national food inquiry found that "the use of tea may now be said to be universal and in 1878 Samuel Phillips Day wrote "What was first regarded as a luxury, has now become, if not an absolute necessity, at least one of our accustomed daily wants, the loss of which would cause more suffering and excite more regret than would the deprivation of many things which once were counted as necessities of life". C.H. Denyer agreed, "We are now almost justified in calling tea the English national drink; the more so as we take of it as much as all the rest of Europe put together."

By the end of the century, the words 'tea' and 'British' were so entwined together that you couldn't think of one without the other. George Gissing summed it up when he said, "Nowhere is the English genius of domesticity more notably evident than in the festival of afternoon tea. The mere chink of cups and saucers turns the mid to happy repose."

During the 20th century, very few negative things have been said about tea. On the contrary, research has proved that our daily cuppa offers all sorts of benefits. The UK Tea Council today states that "All types of tea contain flavonoids, antioxidant compounds that form part of a healthy diet. These flavonoids can help protect our bodies against life-threatening illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. The average daily intake of three or four cups of tea can provide roughly the same amount of antioxidants as eating eight apples."

So, keep taking this much-beloved medicine!