Tea & Steam: An Industrial Revolution

By James Norwood Pratt

Steam, smelly steam, brought the tea trade into the industrial age. An age-old handmade product could now be manufactured by steam-powered machinery and delivered (via Suez) by steamships in half the time of the fastest, most glamorous clipper ship, which required a picked crew, a high freight rate, and a lot of luck. In the last (1871) clipper race the legendary Cutty Sark made the run from Shanghai to London in 107 days, but Calcutta's tea reached London in just forty-five days by steam.

Black tea of the Assam variety became a standardized, industrial-strength commodity. The English author and occultist Aleister Crowley studied Buddhism in Ceylon in 1906. "There seems to be something in the climate," he remarks in his Confessions, "that stupefies the finer parts of a man if he lives there too long. The flavor of the tea seemed to me somehow symbolic. I remember one day pleading with the local shopkeeper to find me some Chinese tea. It chanced that the owner of a neighboring plantation was in the shop. He butted in, remarking superciliously that he could put in the China flavor for me. 'Yes,' I said, 'but can you take the Ceylon flavor out?"'

Such tea snobs were simply overwhelmed; between 1860 and 1914 the only investments in the British Empire more profitable than tea estates were South African gold and diamond mines. British working people were urged to "buy Empire" black teas. Most of these were designated not by leaf type-pekoe, souchong-or origin-Keemun, Bohea-but by brand name: Mazzawattee, Brooke Bond, Ty-phoo, Liptons and Lyons, the tea shop brand.

It's hard to understand why nobody in England thought of the tea shop before 1884, but nobody did. The first was a space in a bakery near London Bridge, and the idea caught on. There are things English people like to do in the absence of the opposite sex (through no lack of love, to be sure), but drinking tea is not one of them. This accounts for the phenomenal success of the Lyons chain of tea shops, which became a national institution overnight, and ever since the British have found it impossible to imagine a time when the tea shop did not exist.

In response to mass merchandizing and advertising, the British increased their consumption of (heavily sweetened) tea steadily right through World War I, and their counterparts in the British dominions followed suit. Australia absorbed tea at the astonishing rate of 7.7 pounds per capita in 1899; U.S. per capita consumption reached its highest point in 1897 at 1.56 pounds. Europe's tea consumption soared also, especially in Russia. Moscow's most famous literary teahouse steeped thirty-three pounds of tea daily-almost six tons a year!

China's peak year for tea exports was 1886; Russia received 27 percent of that total, half the amount of Great Britain but twice that of the United States. Following the Opium Wars, Russian capitalists had set up their own brick tea factories in Hankow in 1861 and gradually gained control of brick tea manufacturing throughout China. The caravan trade went on growing in volume right up to 1880, when the first link of the Trans-Siberian Railroad was opened. With the completion of the railway in 1900, the caravans passed into history, finally returning Usk Kayakhta to the obscurity it so richly deserves. The tea that had formerly required many months to reach Russian samovars made the trip by rail in seven weeks.

Two innovations that revolutionized tea habits and the tea industry in the U.S. date from the first decade of the twentieth century. The first may be traced to the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904, the one the song "Meet Me in St. Louis" was written for. Most of the tea drunk in America at that time came from China, and in the Midwest, for reasons that have never been entirely clear to me, people drank mostly green teas. To popularize Indian tea, therefore, an association of India tea producers established a special pavilion at the fair, staffed with exquisitely mannered and beturbaned Indian servers under the supervision of an Englishman named Richard Blechynden. The scorching Midwestern summer gives New Delhi competition in the Fahrenheit category, however, and Blechynden's exotic, steaming brew was the last thing the sweltering fair-goers felt like sampling. Before long Blechynden himself began sweating, for there was no unemployment compensation at the time, and in his desperation began pouring his tea into glasses crammed with ice just to get people to drink it. People drank it. They came back for more and carried the liking for it back home with them. Thus was born a new American drink - iced tea.

Though uncommon in other countries, the United States is drinking almost fifty billion glasses of iced tea a year as compared to ten billion cups of hot. It takes over two hundred million pounds of tea to fill those cups and glasses each year. That under 5 percent of this amount is now sold as loose tea is due to a second accidental innovation, the tea bag.

In 1908, a New York City tea importer named Thomas Sullivan made an effort to economize on his operating costs by sending samples out to his retail dealers and private customers in little silk bags sewn closed by hand. He was perplexed but delighted when virtually everybody placed orders. Only when they all complained that the tea he delivered wasn't packaged those bags for convenience in steeping, did he get the idea to substitute gauze for the silk and rake in sizable profits, producing the first tea bags. Expensive and elaborate machines and special papers or fibers are used today, but this development, like instant tea, has more to do with business administration and international finance than with the present history. At best tea bags compromise tea quality; most are contemptible, and many beneath contempt. I offer no cringing apologetics for lowest-common-denominator tea: I drink it too. Iced tea and tea bags, made for the most part with tea dust and fannings rather than full leaves, have their place in modern American life, I ungrudgingly acknowledge; the point I'm making is that even the poorest peasant in the homeland of tea would feel entitled to better.