This post was written by Samantha Walsh, Reference Assistant in the Department of Prints, Photographs & Architectural Collections
On September 9, 1828, a member of the Townsend family attended a tea auction at Lippincott & Richards auction house in Philadelphia. While the purchase of tea by a New York merchant is not surprising, I was intrigued to find that the auction catalog, which was found in the Townsend Papers, lists many green teas. It appears that the Wooddrop Sims, the ship whose contents were sold that day, carried predominately Young Hyson Tea from Canton to Philadelphia. Hyson is a Chinese Green Tea; the notation “Young” indicates that the leaves were plucked early, and most likely of a lower quality.
For whatever reason, I assumed that the consumption of green tea (outside of China) was a relatively modern practice, and that 19th-century Americans only drank black teas. A quick look into the Library’s collections, though, proves that Americans have been drinking and discussing black, green, and oolong teas for hundreds of years.
A slim volume entitled A treatise on the inherent qualities of the tea-herb, a translation from the Latin text by “the famous J.N. Pechlinus, Principal Physician to the late King of Denmark,” published in London in 1750, describes the many benefits of tea drinking and the differences between “The Several Kinds of Tea.” The treatise explains: “The Green Teas by reason of their greater Roughness, (are generally speaking) most proper for younger People and stronger Constitutions…” (pp.15-16). Penchlinus goes on to explain that while “Bohea”(black) tea “will bear heating or boiling over again” other teas “are to be made by Infusion only; the least scalding of them being prejudicial both to their Taste and Colour”(pp.9-10). The belief that only black teas can withstand boiling water is still held by most tea drinkers today.
Americans’ interest in tea went beyond preparation to the actual process of growing the tea plant (Camellia Sinensis). The cultivation of the various types of tea is discussed in the Pekin Tea Company’s 1845 Guide to Tea Drinkers. The guide explains the debate between those who believe one plant produces all tea and those who believe there exist multiple varieties of “Tea-tree.” The text correctly concludes: “nearly all those who have resided in China believe that there is but one shrub, which is the exclusive source of all the varieties and shades of the Tea of commerce. One thing is very clear, that the places which produce fine Teas are, like the spots which grow fine wines, extremely limited, but those yielding coarser Teas are widely spread” (p.11).
Not only is the practice of drinking green tea not modern, neither is our interest in quality teas! Pekin Tea Company’s Guide reports, “the people generally are improving in their knowledge of good Tea” (p.18) and goes on to explain that teas of poor quality have been disappearing from the market. Finally, the Guide reminds us why tea is the ideal drink for us discerning Americans: “The Americans are constitutionally sanguine and excitable; and common sense clearly indicates that, for such a class, those drinks only should be indulged that are simple and innoxious.” (p.6)