Historical Reconstruction – A Nice Cup of Tea

In previous blogs I have looked at food and drink from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, trying to get some idea of what the food of the past tasted like. Some have been delicious, some have been delicious and not very good for you, whilst others have been downright poisonous.

Today I will consider something delicious and safe, tea. You might think that it is unnecessary to try and reconstruct the taste of Georgian tea, surely it is the same as today – well read on and see what you think.

One thing ‘everyone knows’ about tea in the eighteenth century, was that it was very expensive. This was true, both because of how much it cost in China (then the source of all tea), transport costs in bringing it halfway round the world, and finally the massive tax put on it by the British government when it arrived. Heavy taxation had several results, it upset some colonials (particularly in Boston), and it naturally encouraged smuggling. Hence the description of Smuggler Bill in the Victorian poem, The Smuggler’s Leap, one of my fathers favourites.

Smuggler Bill is six feet high,
He has curling locks, and a roving eye,
He has a tongue and he has a smile
Trained the female heart to beguile,
And there is not a farmer’s wife in the Isle,
From St. Nicholas quite
To the Foreland Light,
But that eye, and that tongue, and that smile will wheedle her
To have done with the Grocer and make him her Tea-dealer;

But there could be a problem in purchasing unlicensed tea, adulteration. Tea was often bulked up with dried Ash or Blackthorn leaves, if you look at the tea leaves after making a full leaf tea you will see how similar the tea leaf is to that of the Ash or Blackthorn. Well at least it wasn’t poisonous! The only way to guarantee that you were getting a proper tea was to use a reputable tea dealer, one that you could trust. Jane Austen did this, though she complained about the cost,

‘I am sorry to hear that there has been a rise in tea. I do not mean to pay Twining till later in the day, when we may order a fresh supply ‘ letter to Cassandra 6/3/1814

This expensive tea was kept in a Tea Caddy, a lockable box that was brought out when tea was made. These boxes contain one or two compartments, and sometimes a glass bowl. The compartments would contain a black tea, generally known as Bohea (pronounced to rhyme with tea) and a green tea, these were or several varieties, Hyson being the most widespread and general term.

Three Tea Caddies and an eighteenth century tea bowl

The glass bowl is often referred to as a mixing bowl, it being explained that the tea would be blended before being made, other people suggest it was a sugar bowl. I suspect the latter, there are numerous descriptions in Georgian and Regency novels, letters and diaries of people making tea, and I can find no reference to tea being mixed before serving.

So now let’s try to reconstruct the sort of tea that would have been drunk by Jane Austen. The green tea is fairly easy to obtain, several varieties of nineteenth century tea are still available, my favourite is Gunpowder.

Black tea is more difficult, at the time all tea came from China. Bohea seems to have been regarded by the Chinese as a very poor quality tea, however it travelled well which is why the Europeans bought it in large quantities. There seems to be a general opinion that Bohea was a type of Oolong tea, and when tea from Assam was first marketed in Britain it was said to have the scent ‘of a good Bohea.” So I went to our local tea merchant, who was very interested in my experiment and, after a pleasant half hour amongst some wonderfully scented teas, settled on a Black Pearl Oolong as having a scent, when dry, not too dissimilar from an everyday Assam tea.

A Family taking Tea (1745) – note the servant bringing in the hot water

So now let’s make the tea, this was not done in the kitchen, but the ingredients were brought to the room where the tea was to be drunk, and the tea made there. Which leads to the first point, the water, though tea kettles were made, to heat water at the table, for the most part hot water was carried from the kitchen. This would have meant that it was not boiling when the tea was made, this was probably quite a good thing as tea connoisseurs tell us that hot but not boiling water is best for some varieties of tea, indeed the merchant suggests that the oolong I was using was best made with water at 80 C.
Teapots haven’t changed in essentials since they were first brought from China, so it is easy to make up the brew, then it has to be served.

Initially tea cups were small, without handles, as they still are in the Far East, hence the term ‘a dish of tea’. Soon handles were added to create the cup we see today. Also added was sugar, almost as soon as records begun of serving tea in Britain sugar was included. I will talk about sugar in another blog, but for now add a lump of sugar (the closest we can easily get to the loaf sugar of our ancestors) and stir it in. Teaspoons, almost certainly a British invention, rapidly became an essential part of the tea service, indeed became part of kitchen equipment (by the end of the eighteenth century the teaspoon had become the standard measuring device it is today).

A Family of Three at Tea (Richard Collins) – note the different ways of holding the tea bowl

Milk seems to have come later, but by the middle of the century it was being advised as an addition to make the drink healthy. It was not as universally added to tea as sugar, possibly because of the difficulty, in towns at least, of getting fresh milk. In Portsmouth Fanny price was understandably disgusted by;

‘the tea-board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue.’

So for an eighteenth century cup of tea, take a good green or black Chinese tea, make it as strong as you like and serve it with milk and sugar – and enjoy.


Filed under Georgian, Historical Reconstructions, Jane Austen, Regency

7 responses to “Historical Reconstruction – A Nice Cup of Tea

  1. I find it fascinating to wonder what their tea tasted like and whether it had any similarity to today’s blends. Thanks for this. One question; the caddy lining. Was this pewter or lead?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lead, which may have added a little extra to the tea, but compared with what you had from pewter plates and lead pipes was minor. Now the working caddies are lined with soft paper, something mum would do, which is (I hope) harmless.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is very insightful; thank you! I find it interesting that there is no mention of any sieves to prevent the loose leaf tea leaves from tumbling into the cups. These are certainly forefront in any loose leaf tea store I shop at today. The newer teapots have removable ones built in them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tea strainers are a much later invention, if you look at the painting there is no strainer amongst the tea equipment on the table. The way the tea was processed meant that when it was wetted the leaves rehydrated and regained their natural size and provided a natural filter in the pot. Any that did make it through into the cup would have been left in the bottom of the cup and poured into the ‘slop bowl’.
      Tea strainers only became necessary in the late nineteenth century when it was discovered that the edges of the tea leaves contain the bulk of the flavour. This meant that by just taking the edges of the leaves a much stronger tea could be produced, but with much finer ‘tea leaves’ left in the pot afterwards, hence the necessity of a strainer.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Indeed I had noticed the absence of the tea strainers in the pictures. I did not realize that the “finer” tea leaves did not come into existence until the late 19th century. That explains why the tea bag wasn’t invented until the early 1900’s. Thanks! What is interesting is that now, over a hundred years later, we are re-adopting the use of loose leaf teas (with the strainers).

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Sugar, the first Fair Trade product | The Curious Archaeologist

  4. I have an early 19th Century Mahogany Tea Caddy that only has one lidded tea compartment and the other half has a round hole for a glass container. So I am with you that the glass container was not a mixing bowl but a sugar bowl. It makes sense to me as sugar was expensive too at the time. Thanks for a great blog.


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