Did George Washington drink tea? And did our first president own a proper teapot?
Yes! Every man of means — whether living in England or the Colonies — was schooled in proper tea drinking. Even as a bachelor, George Washington acquired choice household essentials which exemplified his gentility and position in Virginia society.
Washington modeled proper etiquette in serving Chinese tea imported from London. We see in a December 1757 tea order where our future president requested “six pounds of best Hyson tea and six pounds of best green tea.” These teas would eventually steep in the six teapots he ordered earlier that year. Other tea orders included Chinese teas similar to those that would be tossed into Boston Harbor during the 1773 tea rebellion: Bohea, Congou and Young Hyson.
One of his bachelor tea sets was the popular pattern famille rose, or overglaze polychrome enamel, depicting scenes of women and children in landscapes popular on Chinese export tea wares after 1750. Such decoration appealed to Western consumers’ desires for exotic, and often playful, imagery on their imported porcelains.
Almost all Chinese tea was packed in simple wooden chests which weighed as much as 350 pounds. These chests were often inspected and re-packed upon arrival in the East India’s Company’s warehouses located on the River Thames in London.
More expensive teas — such as singlo green tea — were packed in smaller custom chests which were hand painted in China. The Smithsonian has a George Washington tea chest, complete with brass closure, in its collection at the National Museum of American History.
As the Revolutionary War drew to a close, French and American officers formed the Society of the Cincinnati in the name of mutual support and friendship. The fraternity’s name was inspired by the 5th-century B.C.E. Roman Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who left his plow to defend Rome in battle, afterward returning to his farm. Washington, who resumed a private life at Mount Vernon after the war, was the Society’s first President General.
The former president perhaps sought to perpetuate his image as the modern-day Cincinnatus when he purchased an extensive Chinese export porcelain service decorated with a simplified version of the society’s insignia — a gold eagle badge bearing an oval medallion containing a depiction of Cincinnatus receiving his sword from the Roman Senators. The majority of items in this unique set feature the trumpeting figure of Fame holding aloft the insignia.
At Martha Washington’s invitation, French officers of General Rochambeau’s army dined at Mount Vernon on July 20, 1782. The Comte de Custine de Sarreck, commander of the Saintonge regiment, sent ahead of his arrival a splendid tea and coffee service specifically made for the Washingtons at his Niderviller porcelain factory. The monogram GW decorates each piece.
The service’s stunning array of gilded and enameled borders, each with its own pattern number painted on the pieces’ undersides, suggests Custine intended it to advertise his wares to a new American market.
Gifts of porcelain were common between the French aristocracy and Americans who traveled to Paris. The service Custine presented to the Washingtons is, however, the only known instance of 18th-century French porcelain crafted for an American recipient.
After the Revolutionary War, George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, and their families exchanged numerous gifts and tokens of affection, perpetuating the warm friendship forged by the General and his “adopted son,” as Lafayette styled himself. According to family tradition, Lafayette gave this tea set, of which a teapot, sugar bowl, and saucer survive, to Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Eliza Parke Custis Law.
A silver hot water urn, similar to this handsome example in the collection at Mt. Vernon, would have been found on the tea tables of George III, Thomas Jefferson and Jane Austen’s well-to-do characters. Hot water was brought by staff from the kitchen and poured into the urn before it made its way into the teapot — often in full view of eager guests.
The ceremony of making tea was a well-honed ritual in both the Americas and Great Britain at the end of the 18th century and into the Regency Period.
It was a high compliment to be offered tea — purchased at great expense and carted from the other side of the world.
Read more about the history of tea in A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew & Bruce Richardson. Benjamin Press.