Book of Tea, Edinburgh edition 1917
Two landmark books on the subject of tea were published in the first half of the twentieth century. One, written by a William Ukers, was a massive two-volume reference set chronicling tea as a commodity. The other was an inspirational collection of essays from Japanese artist Okakura Kakuzo, who spoke of the spirit of tea and its role as the “cup of humanity.” 

Both books still are considered classics, but one eventually attained cult status as it influenced the worlds of art and tea alike.

Okakura Kakuzo was born in the emerging seaport of Yokohama in 1862, eight years after Commodore Matthew Perry’s “Black Ships” pried open Japan’s gates to international trade. Christian missionaries taught him to speak English and sing Methodist hymns, while Buddhist monks schooled him in Confucianism and the drinking of green tea. 

Working alongside his teachers at Tokyo University, all imported from Harvard and other New England schools, Okakura helped save countless Japanese artistic treasures (now housed in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts) from being tossed aside in favor of modern Western aesthetics.


Okakura Kakuzo

By 1904, Okakura had made his way to Boston, where he became the Director of Asian Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts and the favorite companion of Back Bay society’s grande dame, Isabella Stewart Gardner. Thus positioned as a man with one foot in the East and one foot in the West, he deemed tea the perfect metaphor for interpreting the Japanese art spirit to a Boston culture thirsty for a counterpoint to America’s headlong rush into materialism and wealth. 

Okakura’s Book of Tea was first published in 1906 and has never been out of print. The work had a tremendous influence on Frank Lloyd Wright and Georgia O’Keeffe and is considered one of the most influential books ever written for those looking to infuse teaism into their daily lives.

Three decades later in 1935, America’s William Ukers published a two-volume encyclopedia entitled All About Tea. A review in the New York Times expressed “admiration for the qualities that went into its making—the long, patient, scholarly and exhaustive research covering every phase of its subject. It is, indeed, a vastly comprehensive and monumental work, the proverbial ‘last word’ on tea for many a year to come.” 

All About Tea by William Ukers

Ukers, who had authored a similar book on coffee, served as editor and publisher of The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal. He spent twenty-five years collecting material and visiting the tea-growing regions of Asia before delving into research work in the principal libraries, museums, and laboratories of America and Europe. The research  did not end, he says, “Until the final proofs were read in 1935.”

A scant 600 copies of Ukers’ impressive opus were printed, and most can still be found in the collections of tea professionals worldwide.

Text from A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew & Bruce Richardson. Benjamin Press 2013.

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