J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

What Sort of Tea Was Thrown into Boston Harbor?

The Boston Post-Boy of 16 Nov 1767 offered this verse for caffeinated young ladies concerned about the new Townshend duties on, among other, less consequential things, imported tea:

Throw aside your Bohea and your Green Hyson Tea,
And all good things with a new fashion duty;
Procure a good store of the choice Labradore,
For there’ll soon be enough here to suit ye.
Labrador was an herbal tea made from a plant found growing in Canada. (Loyalist judge Peter Oliver later claimed that “it brought on Disorders of Health; & among the rest a Vertigo, as fatal as that which they had brought upon theirselves with Respect to Liberty.”)

But Labrador isn’t the topic of this posting. I’m wondering about what type of tea Americans drank at the time of the Boston Tea Party? Were Bohea and Hyson the most popular kinds, as that verse implied, or were those names simply a lot easier to fit into a rhyme than “Lapsang Souchong”? A 16 Sept 1736 Boston News-Letter advertisement listed several types—Bohea, Congou, Pekoe, green, and fine imperial—with green and Bohea the cheapest and Pekoe the most expensive. (For more about some of those varieties, see TeaMuse’s article on “Teas of Yore.”)

We know that American colonists didn’t import tea bricks, though those things are so quaintly historic and easily displayed that some small museums say they did. Instead, as Ebenezer Stevens recalled and other sources confirm, the tea emptied into Boston harbor came in canvas-covered wooden boxes that had to be chopped open. The Boston Tea Party Museum (now in drydock) displays a possible surviving example of those boxes on its website. And what sort of tea was inside them?

Last week my eye fell on a passage from the diary of John Tudor, a deacon in the North End. After describing how “a number of Resolute men” had destroyed the East India Company tea, Tudor wrote:
The Tea was worth ’tis said at least 25,000 £ sterling, as a great deal of it was green Tea.
So on the day after the Tea Party, Bostonians saw a lot of the tea in their harbor as green tea. Tudor’s remark about the value of the tea also implies that green tea is one of the more expensive kinds.

Benjamin Woods Labaree’s The Boston Tea Party says, “About one-third of the tea exported from China in the eighteenth century was green tea,” with green Hyson “the choicest of all.” But the bulk of the tea that Europeans, and thus European-Americans, consumed was black tea from the Bohea mountains. And Labaree’s Table IV has the exact answer to my question above: the three tea ships at Boston contained 240 chests of Bohea, 15 of Congou, 10 of Souchong (all black teas), 60 of Singlo, and 15 of Hyson (both green teas). Green tea accounted for about 22% of the shipments’ total volume, and 30% of the value.

Was Tudor’s perception that “a great deal of it was green Tea” shaped by what people saw in the harbor the next day? Not all the leaves thrown overboard had sunk. Men went out in boats to beat the remaining shoals of leaves under the water. And perhaps the green tea was the biggest problem. A commenter on this British webpage says, “I've noticed that my Chai teabags (more smaller particles), sink faster than my green tea teabags (larger leaf particles). I suspect it is because the smaller particles get saturated fast than the larger ones.” As a “living history” experiment, does green tea take longer to sink in saltwater than black tea?


Logan said...

Thank-you for your educational piece! Even the Boston Tea Party and Ship Museum didn't go into detail of what was thrown into the harbor.

Anonymous said...

This is gonna come in handy for the tax day tea party im throwing! Thanks!