American colonists traditionally regarded tea with suspicion as a symbol of British oppression, owing to the high tax that had been imposed on it. Their famous reaction was the Boston Tea Party of 1773. After the American Revolution, tea drinking became popular for a while, but experienced another decline at the time of the war of 1812, when Britain and America were once more pitched against each other and Americans were proud to declare themselves staunch coffee-drinkers.

Tea remains a staple drink for many
Tea remains a staple drink for many

Nonetheless, tea remained a staple drink particularly in more settled or genteel circles. It was mostly imported from the Orient by merchants who each claimed to offer the best quality. It wasn’t drunk just at tea-time, when in fact chocolate and coffee were also drunk, but was consumed at breakfast and at bedtime and also during the day in some households.

There were two main methods of preparation, the one chosen depending on where you were from and what you were used to. Either honey and lemon was added, or milk and sugar. It should be borne in mind that refined white sugar was reserved for very special occasions; daily fare was coarse brown sugar with a pronounced taste. Chinese immigrants used imported Chinese tea exclusively and served it ‘clean’, that is, with nothing added.

Teas and various infusions and mixes were considered to have medicinal properties. Mint was a favourite kind of tea, made using the leaves of different kinds of mint plant. Alternatively the leaves could be chewed directly. Taking mint after meals in whatever form was supposed to help with indigestion or an upset stomach.

Not everyone's idea of an ideal cuppa these days
Not everyone’s idea of an ideal cuppa these days

Far stranger to our way of thinking was the practice of making dung tea, which was done by baking the dung of a sheep or pig in the oven, pouring boiling water over it and decanting the resultant liquid. It was supposed to be good for practically any ailment, even ones as serious as measles or smallpox.

Commercially adulterated tea was a problem in the late 1800s. One example was a so-called tea which included chaparral, an extract taken from the leaves of the creosote bush which grows in the western deserts. It was sent to China to be processed before returning to the USA to be sold. Nowadays chaparral is used for treating cancer, but there remain doubts firstly about its effectiveness, and secondly about its possible detrimental effect on the liver and kidneys. The general recommendation is not to use it internally. Certainly in the nineteenth century it was sold fraudulently and was known to cause extreme nausea.

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