Hide

Welcome to Steepster, an online tea community.

Write a tea journal, see what others are drinking and get recommendations from people you trust. or Learn More

K S said

Tea Industry history in America

I just read My Mother Loved Tea and it got me interested in knowing more about when and how tea hit the shelves in America. I Googled and couldn’t find anything on the subject. Any ideas?

22 Replies
teaenvy said

Login or sign up to post a message.

teaenvy said

just bare basics but that link might give you further google ideas.

Login or sign up to post a message.

K S said

Thanks teaenvy. Not quite what I am curious about. In the book I read (about Ruth Bigelow) it gives credit for changing America’s tea aisles to Constant Comment. Of course this is Ruth’s son’s version of the story but he said before CC the shelves had only straight black tea. That is the way I remember our local grocery store tea supply as well. I lived on the stuff and then their Earl Grey. It was only later that I remember seeing other brands. The second most consumed beverage in the world and so little information is out there about it.

Login or sign up to post a message.

mbanu said

My understanding is that it went something like this:

In colonial times the United States was primarily a drinker of Chinese green teas from Anhui Province and Oolong teas from Fujian. The two main sorts were Young Hyson green and “Bohea” (which was Wuyi Oolong tea), with “Bohea” being the most popular. After the opening of Japan to foreign trade in the mid 1800s, the United States became addicted to Japanese green tea in a major way, especially in the midwest, and Oolong teas became less important, although still maintaining a niche in the Northeast. Also, tastes switched from Fujian Oolongs from China to Formosa Oolongs from American-run interests in Taiwan. This remained true until around World War I, and then Japanese green tea went into a slow decline in the U.S., most of the slack being picked up by black tea from Java (Dutch-controlled Indonesia) and Ceylon (British-controlled Sri Lanka), due to the efforts of those countries to grab a foothold in the States. The second World War essentially wiped out Japanese green tea in the United States (as well as destroying the Java tea fields), leading to black Ceylon ending up the most popular. This remained true for several years (helped along by Constant Comment and Lipton) until low-quality black tea from Argentina used its much lower price and acceptable iced tea brewing characteristics to entice iced tea blenders to switch over. As iced tea forms a significant portion of all tea drunk in the United States, this switch was notable. Lately, a renewed interest in green tea is perking up, although I’m not sure what country the U.S. is primarily getting it from.

The reason the U.S. switched to black tea so late isn’t entirely clear. I’ve heard a few reasons proposed, but I don’t know if they are true or not.

1. Residual resentment against the British predisposed Americans against buying black tea from British-owned India or Sri Lankan tea plantations, leaving the main markets for tea China, Japan, and Taiwan.

2. Different responses to adulteration of green tea. For many years the West had a problem with large amounts of adulterated green tea being exported from China. In the United Kingdom, this lead to a belief that black tea was less likely to be adulterated, resulting in a change in tastes that didn’t happen in the United States.

3. The British preference for tea with milk. Black tea is the only sort of tea that tends to take milk well. If you have no preference for milk in your tea, (such as in America), a larger variety of tea seems more appealing.

K S said

mbanu – fascinating. Can you provide some sources for more research.

mbanu said

William Ukers’ two-volume “All About Tea” from 1935 has a good overview of the state of tea before World War II, although it is global, rather than just American. The book on Ruth Bigelow you mentioned is probably the best book on flavored teas in the U.S. between the 1940s and 1970s. A book on the Thomas J. Lipton Company, Lipton Tea’s U.S. counterpart, would probably be a good start for unflavored postwar black teas, but I can’t think of any names right now. After the 1970s, things became a bit muddled, with small tea companies from the Western States like Stash Tea and Celestial Seasonings starting to rise in prominence.

Understanding the U.S. Tea Importation Act of 1897 would probably be pretty helpful. It explains some oddities of the U.S. tea market, since it determined exclusively what kind of teas would and would not be allowed in the United States from 1897 until its repeal in 1996. (It is due to the Act that Pu-erh tea was never popular in the U.S., for instance; it all had to be smuggled in, because it was too similar to mold-damaged tea and did not have its own dedicated standard to compare against.) I don’t think anyone has written a book on the subject, but there are a few papers…

“A Brief History of Tea: The Rise and Fall of the Tea Importation Act” (available for free online, I think)

The FDA interview with Robert Dick, the last U.S. government tea taster. (http://www.fda.gov/downloads/AboutFDA/WhatWeDo/History/OralHistories/SelectedOralHistoryTranscripts/UCM263957.pdf)

For Taiwanese tea, the main character would probably be John Dodd, an Englishman who basically was responsible for Taiwanese Oolong having popularity in the United States. I can’t think of any specific books offhand.

The Argentina issue is also a little hard to find info on. It didn’t really become a trend until 1960 or so. Here’s a short work that might help a little. ( http://issuu.com/prakruthibooks/docs/argentine_tea_book ). There’s also an article on the Argentine tea industry pre-1960 if you have access to JSTOR (http://www.jstor.org/stable/141820).

I’m not sure what books would be best for the history of Java tea in the United States. The major driving force from the Dutch end was the temporary collapse of the Russian tea market due to the Russian Revolution, as Tsarist Russia had formerly consumed a large quantity of Java teas.

K S said

I am blown away. You are a wealth of information. Personal passion or professional reasons for knowing this much about tea history? Thanks again.

mbanu said

A combination of both. :)

Giving it a closer look, I’m less confident about John Dodd and his role on Formosa Oolong in the U.S. Things seem a bit more complicated than they first appeared. For instance, John Dodd was an Englishman, not an American as I had thought. Yet American tea packers were a definite force on Taiwan, and the consumers were almost all Americans… I’ll see if I can find a source to clear things up.

mbanu said

Chapter 14 of “All About Tea” explains it fairly well, it looks like.

Wild tea has grown on Taiwan for many years, and cultivation for local consumption started in the early 1800s. John Dodd’s role was being the first to see its commercial export potential in the 1860s, when he established a firing and refining factory to make the local oolong around Danshui fit for export at an affordable price, under the name of Dodd & Co. However, he went out of business in the 1890s. During those 30 years, however, he was successful enough to attract competitors, who carried it on afterwards, originally British, later largely American. When the British firms around Xiamen (near Anxi, home of Southern-style Fujian Oolongs like Tieguanyin) and Fuzhou realized that the Taiwanese oolongs were selling better in America than the Chinese ones, they started establishing their own firms. Tait & Co. from Xiamen set up shop around Danshui in 1870. They were eventually bought out by Americans, however. Boyd & Co, another British-owned Xiamen Oolong exporter set up in Taiwan in 1872 in Taipei. They lasted until 1934, when they were taken over by an American firm Carter Macy Tea. There were two other British firms, Elles & Co. and Brown & Co., that were also started in 1872 and then taken over by Americans, but they didn’t survive the 19th century. The only British firm from the boom years of American export to remain British and active in Taiwan was Jardine, Matheson & Co., who are still in business today (although no longer focused so much on tea).

There were a series of American firms that established locations in Taiwan, generally for a few years before getting eaten up by larger firms. By the end of the 1930s when Ukers wrote his book, there were six export firms left, of which two were American. Carter Macy Tea & Coffee, probably the oldest of the surviving American firms (founded in 1897) and Tait & Co. still around as a wholly owned subsidiary of a larger American conglomorate known as Irwin-Harrisons-Whitney. Of the other four, two were British, Jardine Matheson and the Anglo-American Direct Tea Trading Company (a relative newcomer started 1927), and two Japanese firms, Mitsui & Co. and Nosawa & Co.

(The Japanese firms were established during the time that Taiwan was under Japanese control, and are mostly remembered for inventing “three quarters fermented oolong”, which was Oolong oxidized to 75%.. Traditional Taiwanese oolongs were oxidized around 50-60%, but as tastes changed, the oxidation level on Taiwanese oolongs grew smaller and smaller, coming more to resemble the pouchong teas that are Taiwan’s other export. An article from the very well-written Art of Tea magazine goes into further detail about oxidation levels: houdeasianart.com/download/FormosaOolongs.pdf)

mbanu said

Another possibility for understanding the pre-War American tea market might be to look into the American grocery chains that founded their early success on tea, like A & P (short for Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company), Kroger’s (originally the Great Western Tea Company), National Supermarkets (originally the National Tea Company), Jewel-Osco (originally the Jewel Tea Company), Grand Union (Originally Jones Brothers Tea Company), etc. Maybe a book on the history of grocery retail in the States would be the best bet there.

K S said

grocery store chain history is what I was originally trying to google. You have taken me in a different but really interesting direction. I did not know that about A&P or Kroger. Had heard of Jewel Tea except I thought it was Jewel T and never made the connection. So much history. I checked out All About Tea it is like $145 so that’s not going to happen.

mbanu said

I’m hoping eventually someone will consider doing an affordable re-print. As long as it is taken as a historical work rather than something describing the modern tea industry, it is a really great resource. Alternately, if no one renews the rights, the whole thing will become public domain in 2015.

If you’re interested in 18th and 19th century American tea history, Google Books is a great resource. Many primary sources on the tea industry of the time have become public domain and been uploaded online for free.

K S said

My first thought was gutenburg project may have converted All About Tea but as you noted it isn’t public domain yet. You have given me tons of leads to read. I’m happy. Thanks for sharing your obviously vast knowledge of the subject.

mbanu said

We’re all learning together. :) I hope you find out what you want to know.

K S said

The wonderful thing is when you find what your looking for it always leads to new questions!

Login or sign up to post a message.

chadao said

I just skimmed. But this doesn’t quite seem like my cup of tea, as far as tea history and culture goes. It is very Anglo-centric. Not to say that this is a bad thing, but I am just more interested in accounts that give a broader world view.

mbanu said

The export tea industry between 1840 and 1940 was very Anglo-centric, sadly. Japan did not want to trade tea with the United States, but was made to through threat of force. (The “opening” of Japan). China was not interested in developing an export market for their teas; The Opium Wars removed their choice in the matter. In British-controlled Sri Lanka and India, the tea plantations were established and operated with very little consideration for the native population; the entire industry was Britain-looking. Perhaps the only exception was Taiwan, which between 1895 and 1945 was under Japanese rule, meaning that it was Japan-centric rather than Anglo-centric, although the Anglo-American influence was still noticeable.

The Tea Importation Act of 1897 was designed without taking into consideration the tea tastes of Chinese-Americans. Consider Pu-erh, for instance; The government tea tasters knew of the style, but there was no official standard for it, effectively banning it from U.S. entry. Instead they talked about what a headache it was to prevent Chinese grocers from smuggling it in anyway. The standard was amended from time to time – until the 1970s flavored teas had to be flavored in the United States, and would not be allowed in pre-flavored. But the standard was amended to allow flavored teas to be flavored in their home countries. (I imagine to assist in the importation of British-blended Earl Grey, rather than Chinese Hua Cha). Yet Pu-erh never received its own standard.

I would love for a history of the Chinese-American grocers who founded their success on tea in parallel to the Lipton’s and Kroger’s, etc. If anyone out there can recommend any sources, I’d definitely be interested.

Related to this, if anyone can add information on the history of any Chinese-American, Japanese-American or Taiwanese-American run tea import-export firms, I would love that information as well.

The closest I have are some studies on the Japan Central Tea Association…

For many years after the 1850s, all the export processors in Japan were foreign-owned. However, in 1887 a system of mass “unionization” of all the Japanese-run aspects of the tea industry in Japan lead to the creation of the Japan Central Tea Association, a powerful lobby group that was backed by the Japanese Department of Agriculture and Commerce. Together they were able to create a bulwark of influence that prevented foreign companies from making decisions unilaterally, a very different situation than in most other tea-producing countries. They were able to open Japanese-owned refiring factories, giving them the ability to export directly. However, they did not have the same access to infrastructure that the Americans had. In the early 1900s, when the Japanese empire was on the rise, they were able to invest significant funds into the Central Tea Association, allowing it to do its own independent marketing of green tea in the United States, distinct from American packers and buyers (I believe their U.S. outposts were centered around Chicago and New York), but I don’t have any hard data on how successful these all-Japanese firms were in competing against the Americans. The entire thing collapsed in on itself after World War II, as without government backing the Central Tea Association had significantly less freedom.

The chapter on tea in Shinya Sugiyama’s “Japan’s industrialization in the world economy, 1859-1899 : export trade and overseas competition” goes into this a bit… can’t think of any other sources off the top of my head.

K S said

My initial curiosity was spurred by the claims David Bigelow made about his mother’s contribution to American tea drinking. What was neglected – as it wasn’t really pertinent to the story being told – was why there was pretty much only straight black tea on the grocers shelves prior to Constant Comment. Mbanu has done an amazing job of explaining the politics behind the why, and presenting a bigger picture of how the rest of the world fits into it. I now have a much better understanding and a deeper appreciation for all the variety we enjoy today. Chadao if that doesn’t grab you that’s ok.

mbanu said

I appreciate the compliment, K S. :)

Chadao, one interesting-looking source I just stumbled across is “Japan in New York”, courtesy of Google Books ( http://books.google.com/books?id=zpxAAAAAYAAJ ). It mentions a few Japanese and Japanese-American tea import-export companies, as well as giving a bit more background on the role of the Central Tea Association…

====

FURUYA & CO.
96 Front Street.
This company was established by Mr. Takenosuke Furuya in 1893. Mr. Furuya had also been entrusted with the business engineering of the Central Tea Association of Japan, whose purpose was to exploit the American market for the Japanese tea trade.

Mr. Furuya is credited with being the first direct importer of Japanese tea and his company is now the sole agent for the newly organized Japan Consolidated Tea Company. The company is managed by Mr. Giichiro Homma, assisted by five Japanese and six Americans. Its volume of business amounts to four million pounds of tea annually.

GOTTLIEB, MIZUTANY & CO.
87 Front Street.

This company was organized by Messrs. Gottlieb and Tomotsune Mizutany, in May, 1901, for the sole intention of importing tea from the Eastern countries, with its headquarters in Chicago and branch offices in New York, Cleveland, St. Paul, Seattle, and Shizuoka, Japan. The New York branch is managed by Mr. Iwao Nishi with a staff of twenty-five able assistants.

The average value of business anually is estimated at between 3,500,000 and 3,600,000 pounds of tea, of which more than 1,700,000 pounds are disposed of in this market. Japan tea is its chief trading article, but Formosan and China are also imported.

[. . .]

JAPAN TEA EXPORTING COMPANY, LTD.
87 Front Street.

The above company was organized in Japan in the year 1895 with a capital of 400,000 yen.

The company was until 1905 represented in this country by only an agency at which time the branch offices were opened both in this city and Chicago.

The company’s President is Kumao Ito and the Director-General is Hikonozio Komata. Its New York branch is managed by Mr. Iwao Kawaguchi, assisted by five others, of which three are Americans.

The volume of business done by this company is figured at 3,500,000 pounds annually.

====

Another is “Prominent Americans interested in Japan and Prominent Japanese in America” ( http://books.google.com/books?id=JljUAAAAMAAJ ), which has some biographies of Japanese tea-men. For instance, below are the citations for Mr. Furuya and Mr. Mitsutany:

====

MR. TAKENOSUKE FURUYA.

Mr. Takenosuke Furuya, New York representative of the Japan Central Tea Association, was born in May, 1867. in the province of Ibaraki, and was educated in Tokyo. In 1888 he came to the United States and he studied in Adrian College and Ann Arbor High School. He graduated from the Law School of Michigan University in 1892. He took his course of study by self support.

He lived in Chicago from 1892 to 1894. He was the first commissioner of the Japan Central Tea Traders’ Association, which was established in 1884 [sic?] under the supervision of the Department of Agriculture and Commerce of the Imperial Japanese Government, at the World’s Fair in Chicago, in April, 1894. He was sent by the Association as its representative and ever since has continued to be so. His office is at 96 Front street, New York. He also represents the Japan Tea Exporting Company of Kobe, the Japan Tea Firing Company of Yokohama, and the Toyo Tea Trading Company of Shizuoka.

MR. TOMOTSUNE MITSUTANY.

Mr. Tomotsune Mistutany, the representative of the Japan Central Tea Traders’ Association in Chicago, was born in September, 1872, in the province of Chiba. Until 1892 he continued his study in the Higher Middle School of Tokyo, and later he studied English in Kokumin Egakkai in Tokyo. He was sent to the World’s Fair in Chicago as commisioner of Japanese tea merchants. In 1894 he entered the political school of the Imperial University, where he studied for four years. In June, 1897, he was appointed as the representative of the Japan Central Tea Traders’ Association in Chicago, where he is still. In May, 1901, he opened Gottliebe, Mitsutany & Co., at 34 Wabash avenue, in Chicago, in partnership with Mr. Gottliebe, for importing Japanese tea. The business is growing in all its branches.

chadao said

KS, mbanu has grabbed me indeed! Mbanu, your info on the history and politics of tea are simply amazing. I hope you don’t mind if I log you as a resource if I have further questions. Until next time, happy drinking!

mbanu said

Thanks for the compliment, chadao.

I feel we are all really resources for each other on forums like these. I do always enjoy talking with others about tea, though, and look forward to any future conversations. :)

Login or sign up to post a message.

GuyOne said

While certainly not in the same excellent historical perspective that mbanu has provided, a decent view of more current events in American/Chinese tea relations is the movie All In This Tea. It’s short and focus’s on David Hoffman’s fight with both the Chinese governments and tea industry bureaucracy’s in his attempt to go directly to the grower and acquire quality tea. As a short piece, the viewer isn’t able to get a real feel of Mr. Hoffman’s personality. One mainly see’s his ego at play, but perhaps only someone with such a strong character could have gone up against the Chinese tea industry in the ’90s. A good little documentary.

Login or sign up to post a message.

Login or sign up to leave a comment.