For colonists in the pre-Revolutionary War era, tea was more than a drink. It was a social ritual, a status symbol and a family rite. In 1773, when the British Parliament voted to maintain a tax on tea in the colonies, it was perceived as oppression. That kicked off the Boston Tea Party, and eventually led to war.
To learn more about this historic brew, mark your calendars for “Revolutionary Tea: An 18th Century Experience,” to be presented at the Brigantine branch of the Atlantic County Library on Wednesday, March 14 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
The program, a celebration of Women’s History Month, will feature historical interpreter Stacy F. Roth, of History on the Hoof, who will serve up tea lore through music, poetry and songs of the period.
Coffee, tea and chocolate were the beverages of choice among our founding mothers and fathers, said Roth, in part because water quality was doubtful, and boiling made it safer. It was trendy too, said the historian, a self-described “New Jereysan in exile” who grew up in Union and Burlington counties and now lives in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania.
“When tea first arrived in the west from China, it was considered chic,” said Roth. “At first only the wealthy drank it, then people who wanted to emulate them started to drink it too. Socially, it showed your wealth and hospitality if you drank and served tea.
“Any time was a good time for tea — it was served at breakfast, supper and after the main meal of the day,” says Roth. “They would go into their parlors, serve tea to their guests and nibble a little bread and butter or a small cake.” Tea was so central to the social experience that women of the time were often photographed with their fine china and sterling tea sets.
Of course, the library’s “Revolutionary Tea” program will include an actual tea service. “We’ll have oolong tea, green tea and orange pekoe tea with milk and sugar,” said library branch manager Mary Beth Fine. “For simplicity, we’ll use tea bags instead of loose tea, and also serve pound cake, which was a typical dessert of the time.”
Fine scoured local thrift stores for teapots and will set out a collection of teacups that were once used for “Harry Potter”-themed library programs.
“Revolutionary Tea” is not just about the social side of tea-drinking, said Roth. “There are all sorts of aspects to it — the literature, the cultural, political and social history.” For example, she said, tea was also taxed in England in the colonial era, and at a higher rate than in in the New World. “But when they decided to maintain a 3 pence per pound tax on tea, the colonists said it was taxation without representation. They were already paying local taxes, and felt it was a foot in the door to more taxes.” Bostonians were not the only ones who threw tea-party protests. Here in New Jersey, similar acts of defiance took place in both Princeton and Greenwich.
Roth will also talk about the revolutionary women of that time. “Some of the political songs and poetry in the program were written by women. There was a lot more dissent and resisting on their minds than people today imagine. Many of them had a great sense of humor; they put up with the status quo, but complained about it — a lot.”
Roth presents the program in period costume, “in a gown with a cap or bonnet. My clothing is respectably authentic looking, but I do not portray the upper class, and I’m not dressed like Marie Antoinette. I like to make the program very accessible and unstuffy.”
Among the tunes in her repertoire is one called “That Blasted Herb,” first published in 1774, shortly after the Boston Tea Party:
“Rouse every generous thoughtful mind, the rising danger flee!
If you would lasting freedom find, now then abandon tea.”