Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson penned A Social History of Tea (Benjamin Press, 2014), which covers the various shifts in tea culture in the United Kingdom and the United States.
The popularity of tea in the U.K. and the U.S. ebbed and flowed during the 20th century, according to Pettigrew and Richardson in their chapter titled The Fall and Rise of Tea.
In the book, they describe the economic influences on how tea was sold in the 1950s as British laws regarding wages and working conditions put a larger financial burden on teahouses and tea shops. During this period, high tea in London hotel dining rooms became more simple. Provincial English towns retained teatime traditions that would endure for the ensuing decades.
In the United States, tea culture almost disappeared between 1960 and 1990, according to the authors.
However, they go on to describe a kind of tea renaissance, as during the 1980s, some hotels in New York, such as the Waldorf Astoria, began to reintroduce the tradition of afternoon tea. San Francisco also fostered a tea revival as companies such as Republic of Tea, Mighty Leaf Tea Company, Numi and more all sprung up in the Bay Area. The tea trend spread to other states as the Perennial Tea Room opened near Seattle’s popular Pike Place Market. Other tea rooms followed in Minnesota, Tennessee and Georgia.
Over in the U.K., the UK Tea Council formed the Tea Council’s Guild of Tea Shops, which established standards for teahouses across the country against which to check themselves. Though many people enjoyed the cuisine and quieter atmosphere of a teahouse, younger customers could not relate to the Edwardian atmosphere of a teahouse.
This brings the book chapter to the late 1990s, during which time articles began touting the health benefits of tea. Skin care companies started to incorporate tea in their ingredients. It became fashionable to consume tea as it pervaded American culture. By 2000, tea had begun to shed its archaic image.
They illustrate this new era of tea in greater detail in the excerpt from their book below.
It wasn’t long before news organizations across the globe ran articles with headlines such as “Cheers to the healthy Cuppa,” “Daily Cuppa is a healthy option,” “Tea: now the ultimate in fashionable health drinks” and “How a simple cup of tea can help beat cancer.” Green tea was perceived to have even stronger powers than black, and, in recognition, a new range of green tea products started to appear on supermarket shelves in the late 1990s. These carried messages such as: “Green teas are naturally low in caffeine and contain polyphenols which are valued for their antioxidant properties.” While the caffeine message was not always accurate, the facts about polyphenols were. Consumers who had taken tea for granted now thought of it as a stylish, healthy alternative to coffee and alcohol.
Manufacturers of skin-care products and cosmetics also began to consider tea’s health potential. Several major international companies launched a wide range of products that included a tea extract in their list of ingredients. Even top perfumers included black and green tea in their products because of the suitability of the aroma as a base for other essential constituents and because of tea’s symbolic importance.
When fashion designer Donna Karan launched a range of house-wares in 1997 and a tea bar in her Manhattan store, she promoted her boxed set of Chinese teapot and drinking bowls with the following words: “Performed with care, the simplest acts can balance and center us. The preparation, serving and drinking of tea has long been one of the most soothing and satisfying of life’s rituals. Slow down. Focus. Find the beauty in life’s basics.”
A survey of attitudes toward tea carried out for the UK Tea Council in 1993 indicated that older members of society were more enthusiastic about tea than other groups. However, consumers in all age groups saw it as excellent value for money; the respondents said that they regarded tea as an extremely convenient and healthy option, low in calories, natural and with no unwanted additives, relaxing and reviving, thirst quenching, suitable for all times of the day and all occasions. In an article that appeared both in the Times and in Tea International in 1994, journalist Jonathan Margolis noted that “tea continues serenely to dominate our culture, its rituals pervading every area of our social life. The teapot is an icon for all classes.”
As the 1990s drew to a close, tea was beginning to lose its dusty image. Most importantly, tea was gaining an image as a true gourmet beverage that was also a part of a healthy lifestyle. No longer just a drink from the past, tea, in its modern incarnations was taking on a younger reputation that would propel it into the twenty-first century.
At World Tea Expo:
Join Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson as they tell the story of tea’s rise in importance in the culture and commerce of Britain and the USA.
Session: A Social History of Tea in the UK and the US
When: Thursday, June 15; 10:15 am – 11:15 am