Print by T. Rowlandson c.1810 British Museum
Tea was an exotic new beverage during the 1700s and there were few directions on how to steep the expensive leaves cultivated on the other side of the globe. There were no tea books and steeping suggestions were not included with your purchase because tea would not come in packages until the 1800s.

Then there was the issue with taxes. While taxation remained high and tea was an expensive commodity, it was not surprising that unscrupulous traders on both sides of the Atlantic found ways of stretching supplies. 

Additives were often mixed in, as condemned in an Act passed by the British government in 1725: 

“very great quantities of sloe leaves, liquorice leaves, and the leaves of tea that have been before used, or the leaves of other trees, shrubs or plants in imitation of tea … and do likewise mix, colour, stain and dye such leaves, and likewise tea with terra japonica, sugar, molasses, clay, logwood and other ingredients, and do sell and vend the same as true and real tea, to the prejudice of the health of His Majesty’s subjects, the diminution of the revenue and to the ruin of the fair trader.” 

Jonas Hanway, writing in 1756, confirmed the trade in used leaves: “You have also heard, that your maids sometimes dry your leaves and sell them: the industrious nymph who is bent on gain may get a shilling a pound for such tea. These leaves are dyed in solution of Japan earth….”

Twinings Trade Card c.1789 British Museum
In 1785, Richard Twining surely saw an increase in trade at his London shop on the Strand after he wrote graphic details about tea adulteration in the pamphlet Observations on the Tea & Window Act and on the Tea Trade:

“I shall here communicate to the Public a particular account of this manufacture, which I have lately received from a gentleman, who has made very accurate enquiries on the subject.

When gathered they are first dried in the sun then baked. They are next put on the floor and trod upon until the leaves are small, then lifted and steeped in copperas, with sheep’s dung, after which, being dried on the floor, they are fit for use.”

Twining suggested that in one small area of  England, approximately 20 tons of “smouch” were manufactured every year. 

But the adulteration of tea leaves was not taking place just in England. It was also a Chinese practice to mix other substances with the tea. European and American consumers expected their expensive green teas to have a blue tinge to their coloring and so, as the great plant hunter, Robert Fortune, explained in 1852 in A Journey to the Tea Countries of China, the Chinese method had for some time been to “crush Prussian Blue to a fine powder and add gypsum in a ratio of three to four resulting in a light blue dye powder. Add the powder five minutes before the end of the last roasting.” 

Bohea was a lesser grade China black tea that was popular in Britain and America throughout the 1700s.

A London newspaper, the Family Herald, commenting on Fortune’s publication, said, “We Englishmen swallow tea, go to bed, turn and toss, keep awake, get up, complain of unstrung nerves and weak digestion, and visit the doctor, who shakes his head and says, ‘tea!’ This is what he says, but what he means is ‘Metallic paint.’”

Because the consuming public knew that it was easier to adulterate green tea, more and more people began to buy only black. This may have marked the beginning of the British preference for black tea and a gradual decline in the amount of green tea purchased. 

The thought of unknowingly drinking tea dyed in sheep’s dung was enough to persuade Jane Austen to make regular trips into London in order to purchase her “pure teas” from the Twining shop. 

But, as the 19th century drew to a close, Chinese tea blenders were asked to share their tea coloring tips with Japanese growers as American imports of Japanese green and oolong teas swelled. The American government finally stepped in and appointed a tea inspection board in 1897.

Read more stories from the history of tea in A SOCIAL HISTORY OF TEA by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson. 2014 Benjamin Press expanded edition.

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