One of my favorite tea artifacts is a copy of THE PENNY MAGAZINE OF THE SOCIETY FOR THE DIFFUSION OF USEFUL KNOWLEDGE, published in London in April 28, 1832. The front page of that edition contains a lengthy essay on the production of tea in China. Here is a short snippet from that treatise –

It is a commonly received opinion that the distinctive color of green tea is imparted to it by sheets of copper, upon which it is dried. For this belief, there is not, however, the smallest foundation in fact, since copper is never used for the purpose. Repeated experiments have been made to discover, by an unerring test, whether the leaves of green tea contain any impregnation of copper, but in no case has any trace of this metal been detected.

The Chinese do not use their tea until it is about a year old, considering that it is too actively narcotic when new. Tea is yet older when it is brought into consumption in England, as, in addition to the length of time occupied in its collection and transport to this country the East India Company are obliged by their charter to have always a supply sufficient for one year’s consumption in their London warehouse, and this regulation which enhances the price to the consumer, is said to have been made by way of guarding in some measure against the inconveniences that would attend any interruption to a trade entirely dependent upon the caprice of an arbitrary government.

The people of China drink their infusion prepared in the same manner as we employ, but they do not mix it with either sugar or milk.

All this useful, and sometimes errant, knowledge of tea was accumulated third or fourth hand, or through the vivid imagination of the writer because few Westerners had ever observed tea production up close and personal in China. It would be another 16 years before the East India Company employed Edinburgh botanist Robert Fortune to make a dangerous three-year journey, in disguise, into the tea growing regions of Anhui and the famous Wuyi Mountains of Fujian. He was the first Anglican to secret tea plants out of China (1847) for transplant into India. 

Fortune’s story is one of the great commercial espionage capers in history – and it has an American connection. You can read it in  A Social History of Tea, by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson of Benjamin Press.

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