The Story of Tea and the Revolutionary War in America

Nov 21, 2018
Photo by: Pat Johnson Stacy Flora Roth sips 'bohay' tea from a china cup.

If it hadn’t been for the British tax on tea, we might be having bangers and mash on Nov. 22 instead of turkey. How did tea in the Colonial age become a precursor for the American Revolution? That was one of the answers Stacy Flora Roth would answer during her hour-long presentation at the Tuckerton Seaport on Nov. 15.

Roth is a presenter for the Public Scholars Project run by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, a partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

She came dressed in colonial housewife garb and brought a fife, a guitar, and a tea set that would have made a woman in the 1770s proud.

First of all, Roth introduced us to the plant itself. There are currently over 8,000 types of tea in China, but in the 18th century there were about a dozen, with bohea, a black tea, and Hyson, a green tea, the most popular in the colonies.

Europeans discovered tea during the Ming Dynasty (1364 to 1644) when the Portuguese and Dutch started to trade with the Chinese. Before that, everyone drank beer, rum or hard cider. Then the wealthy took to coffee, tea and chocolate, which all contained lively caffeine.

“They couldn’t drink water because the water would make them sick. Can you imagine how people felt by starting their day with an alcoholic beverage? How do you feel after you have had one or two mimosas at brunch?” asked Roth. “Do you feel like doing anything, or just going back to bed?

“This is the caffeine theory of history,” said Roth with a smile.

Tea was introduced to England shortly before the reign of King Charles II, who returned to England from exile in Holland with his Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza. She made drinking tea popular among the court, and social climbers followed in the practice.

“Tea was pre-brewed and stored in barrels,” said Roth. “Now there were breakfasting houses that sold tea and bread and butter. Once caffeinated beverages became the drink of choice at breakfast, the pace of daily life seemed to accelerate.”

Soon the colonies started to appreciate tea. “A famous botanist, Israel Acrelius, wrote that ‘Even in the rudest cabin of South Jersey, they are drinking tea.’

“In 1761, it cost 5 to 7 shillings for a pound of tea,” said Roth. “And 56,000 pounds were imported to the Americas. By 1762, it had increased to 161,000 pounds and in 1768, a whooping 878,743 pounds were imported to the colonies."

Now tea was seen as a readily taxed commondity.

Charles Townsend, exchequer or treasurer of the Crown, created the Townsend Acts of 1767. The British government needed funds after the French and Indian War (1754-1763) had left it in debt. The Stamp Act of 1765, in which every document, broadside and even playing cards were taxed within the 13 colonies, had been repealed in a year after American protests, but the British needed a new tax. The Townsend Acts  taxed glass, lead, paper and tea. Roth sang a popular ditty of the times that suggested not using these taxed goods. Her song suggested, “Love your country more than fashion and throw away your bohea.”

Tea was smuggled into the colonies – leading to more friction between England and her “daughters,” the colonies.

And housewives went into their gardens to look for substitutes for Chinese tea, said Roth. “Mint, sage, raspberry and strawberry leaves, rose leaves and the most popular – Labrador and New Jersey tea, two plants that grow near bogs.”

When tea exporters  complained to Parliament that they were losing money, the tax was repealed on the goods – all except for tea. In 1773, Parliament then gave the East India Tea Co. a monopoly on selling tea to the Americas, and it was to choose the well-connected merchants in America as their agents. Only a handful of merchants were selected as consignees, including two of the Massachusetts governor’s sons.

“This is what got the people upset,” said Roth.

The seeds of the Boston Tea Party were sown, and Roth continued the fascinating tale of Revolutionary tea.

Roth is a freelance museum educator, public speaker, vocalist and performance artist specializing in themes of American history. Through her company “History on the Hoof,” she offers programs on Molly Pitcher as well as on the homefront during World War II. An entrepreneur since 1993, she started her carreer in archives, museums and historic sites and is a member of the Association for Living History, Farms and Agricultural Museums.

— Pat Johnson

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