An item posted online awhile ago made me start thinking about what tea our U.S. Presidents in the early days of this country would drink. Tea was much more popular then with those “colonists” than it is today with us “Americans,” even though their options were more limited than ours are today. The advent of Lincoln’s Birthday on the 12th of February and Washington’s Birthday on the 22nd of February made this question even more prevalent in my mind. Time to go exploring.
Tea in the Colonies
The Colonists were quite a bunch of tea drinkers. One estimate is that before the Revolutionary War (to break away from the British Empire and be an independent nation), they were steeping up about 10 pounds on average of tea per year (that’s 10 pounds of dry tea for every man, woman, and child). Water had to be boiled anyway to sanitize it for drinking, so might as well pop in some tea leaves. This love of tea shows, though, how infuriated they were at the British government for imposing a tax on something that was such an important part of their daily lives. To be willing to throw away a huge cargo of it into the Boston harbor meant that they had had enough. It should have been a sign to King George and his court, but… well, that’s history. And it had a profound effect on both the Colonists/Americans as well as on those early Presidents, as you will see below.
George Washington, First President
Tea at the house of George and Martha Washington was always the finest available. They included Hyson, Young Hyson, Congo, Bohea, Gunpowder, Imperial, and a generic green tea (see below for more information on each). These were not cheap teas. For one thing, they were shipped from China to England and then shipped to “the Colonies.” For another, taxes were imposed plus the India Tea Company had quite a stranglehold on the tea market. Still, Washington had three cups of green tea (no cream or sugar) at breakfast with his stack of 3 hoecakes (made of cornmeal) covered with honey and butter. During the Revolutionary War, he continued his tea consumption and shared it with his Army officers. Even after being elected President, he served tea at state occasions, using the Washingtons’ own tea sets, tea boards, tea tables, tea chests, silver teaspoons, and a silver-plated tea urn. Apparently, he was one who thought that tea was tea, that he enjoyed it, and the British be…well, you know.
John Adams, Second President
One tea vendor’s site states that John Adams declared tea a traitor’s drink, citing a letter to Adams’ wife. Certainly Adams had a key role in the Colonies declaring and eventually winning their independence from the British Empire, and certainly his preferred daily quaff was a lightly fermented cider (at a time when a lot of water available was unsafe and unfit to drink). But he had been an ardent tea drinker early on. His declaration of tea as a traitor’s drink seems to have been inspired by Mrs. Huston on his travels. He stopped at her house (possible an inn) from his long (35 miles) horseback ride and asked for “a Dish of Tea provided it has been honestly smuggled, or paid no Duties” and was told “we have renounced all Tea in this Place. I cant make Tea, but He make you Coffee.” At that point Adams vowed to switch to coffee. However, tea was one of the beverages served at the reception given for the opening of the newly built White House on New Year’s Day, 1801. A bit of traitorous behavior? Probably not – just a good host catering to the preferences of his guests. So our bias for coffee doesn’t really seem to have stemmed from this President, and I doubt he had that much influence over what people in the “new country” drank.
Thomas Jefferson, Third President
Before, during, and after the Revolutionary War of Independence, the Jefferson household enjoyed fair amounts of teas of various kinds. Bohea and Congou plus Pekoe were regulars. Chu-chong, Hyson, Young Hyson, and Imperial were also consumed almost daily (see details on these below). This is from Jefferson’s Memorandum Books where purchases were recorded. The last mentions of specific teas were made in 1794. Maybe Adams had convinced him that tea was indeed the traitor’s drink. (Wink!) More likely he had switched to something else under doctor’s orders are the entries weren’t recorded.
James Madison, Fourth President
James and Dolley Madison were a social couple, with vivacious Dolley playing hostess in a brightly colored turban (an imitation of Turkish fashions that were in vogue in Europe and America at the time) and gay dresses festooned with furs and jewels. He, in contrast, was a mere 5’4” and weighed about 100 pounds, was soft-spoken yet dynamic in his speech-giving and writings, and dressed fairly conservatively in dark colors. They both danced, and dined and wined grandly in a fairly continuous stream of parties, spending little time with each other alone or with Dolley’s son, John. Tea (which ones is not specified) was one of the Madisons’ morning beverages (the other being coffee), accompanying their typical menu of ham or salt fish, herring, and slices of buttered bread (toasted or untoasted). Apparently they had not quite gone along with Adams on that whole traitor idea where tea was concerned.
Abraham Lincoln, Sixteenth President
Skipping ahead a bit, we come to Lincoln, included here due to the recent observance of his birthday. In contrast to Madison, Lincoln and his wife Mary did not drink alcohol. One source says he drank water, milk, tea, and coffee. Another (a quote from the diary of one of his bodyguards in the White House) says he only saw the President drink water. The Lincoln’s were fairly frugal and would invite guests over late enough to be there after dinner and then served them tea and cakes (and strawberries when in season). Ah, tea, the frugal way to entertain! And no talk here of being a traitor.
More About Those Early American Teas
Today we are very used to having a wide array of teas from which to choose, but in the Colonial days here and even after the United States was formed, tea was limited and pricey. Here is some more info about the teas named above that these early Americans were able to buy and enjoy:
- Bohea (武 夷 茶) – in the 18-19th centuries, this referred generally to black tea; the name comes from the Wuyi Mountain area in northern Fujian province, China.
- Chu-chong (Souchong) – a black tea usually dried with smoke from pine wood fires; we know it today as Lapsang Souchong (see our version here).
- Congo – today spelled Congou (工夫红茶), it is a black tea from China; in the 19th century this was a favorite of American and European tea importers and became the base of their English Breakfast blend (other teas are used these days, from Kenya, Sri Lanka, Assam in India, etc.); the name comes from gongfu (kungfu) with means “skill” or “done with skill.” This tea is often flavored with Lychee fruit (see our version here).
- Generic green tea – I am going to guess that this was the more low-quality teas that were not from a specific region of China.
- Gunpowder (珠茶) – a form of green tea from Zhejiang Province, China; each leaf is rolled into a small round pellet (thus the name). This tea style dates from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when the leaves were rolled by hand (today it is done by machines for the lower grades and by hand for the higher grades).
- Hyson (Lucky Dragon Tea) and Young Hyson – a green tea from Anhui province, China; the young leaves are thinly rolled to a long, twisted shape that unfurls when infused. Regular hyson is low or middle quality. Young hyson is high quality, being harvested “before the rains”; there are 4 grades (Chun Mee, Foong Mee, Saw Mee, and Siftings) or may be classified simply as 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Young Hyson (the Chinese classify it as Mi Yu, O Yu, I Yu, Ya Yu, and Si Yu). In the 18th century hyson of any grade/classification was highly desired and taxed higher than other teas (it was one of the teas tossed into the harbor at the Boston Tea Party).
- Imperial – a green tea that was described by the merchant Jefferson bought it from as “green Chinese tea made from older leaves” (I take this to mean mature leaves versus the tender tippy leaves).
- Pekoe – black tea usually made from whole leaves at that time (Orange Pekoe is a grading system for some teas made from whole leaves).
Time for your own Early American tea party? Just don’t go chucking any into the harbor. Good tea is a terrible thing to waste. And don’t worry about that whole traitor thing. It seems that as people immigrated here from countries where coffee was more prevalent that they brought that preference with them and it spread, accounting for the preponderance of that beverage over tea.