The earliest reference to the use of tea in Holland appears in a letter dated January 2, 1637, from the “Lords XVII,” the name by which the seventeen directors of the Dutch East India Company were popularly known, to the Governor General of Netherlands East India at Batavia. It reads:
As tea begins to come into use by some of the people, we expect some jars of Chinese as well as Japanese tea with each ship.
America received its first tea via the Dutch East India Company into the settlement of New Amsterdam (now New York). The first instance of tea drinking in the settlement was likely by the Dutch East India Company Director Peter Stuyvesant when he arrived as governor in 1647. His inventory of household goods included teapots, spoons, and cupboards.
Early records show the custom of taking tea by the upper class of New Amsterdam proved equal to that of their native Holland. The tea tray, tea table, teapots, sugar bowl, silver spoons, and strainer were the pride of the Dutch household in the New World.
Rich burghers and their families often retreated to their garden pavilions to take afternoon bread, fruit and tea. The socially correct grand dame of New Amsterdam not only served tea but brewed several kinds in different pots to accommodate the tastes of her guests. She never poured milk or cream with tea, for this was a later innovation that came to America from France, but she did offer sugar and sometimes saffron or peach leaves for flavoring.
The records of household inventories indicate that tea was very much in vogue in New Amsterdam as recorded by Esther Singleton in the book Dutch New York:
Dr. De Lange has a number of teacups and no less than 136 teapots. Lawrence Dedyke has a tea-board among his articles, and Mr. Van Varick, a small oval table painted, a wooden tray with feet, a sugar pot, three fine china teacups, one jug, four saucers, six smaller tea saucers, six painted tea dishes, four tea dishes, five teacups, three other teacups, four teacups painted brown, six smaller teacups, three teacups painted red and blue, one tea dish and two cups finest porcelain.
In August 1664, Stuyvesant was forced to surrender all Dutch-controlled settlements to the British, and New Amsterdam was re-christened “New York” to honor James, Duke of York and brother of King Charles. The Colony’s largest borough was named “Queens” as a tribute to Queen Catherine, and the ever-present ritual of daily tea drinking continued to flourish under British governance.
By 1690 Boston merchants Benjamin Harris and Daniel Vernon were licensed to sell tea in accordance with the English law requiring every purveyor of tea to have a license for its sale. Chief Justice Samuel Sewall mentioned tea once in his published diary. He chronicled the fact that he drank it at Madam Winthrop’s house in 1709 at a Thursday lecture and he does not note the Asian beverage as a rarity.
The social customs of early Boston are mentioned by Francis Drake in her book Tea Leaves: “When ladies went to parties, each carried her teacup, saucer, and spoon in a bag. The cups were of the best china, very small, containing about as much as a common wineglass.”
Despite growing awareness of tea, its proper preparation was not widely understood in the New World, and the exotic leaves sometimes proved to be a mystery to the untrained housewife.
In the book, Customs and Fashions in Old New England, Alice Morse Earle shares an unfortunate account of tea-making in Salem by the family of Philip English “where the tea leaves, purchased at great expense, were boiled for a long time until a bitter decoction was produced, which was drunk without milk or sugar; then the leaves were salted and eaten with butter. In more than one town, the liquid tea was thrown out and the leaves were eaten.”
Excerpt from A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew & Bruce Richardson. Benjamin Press.