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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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tea Merchant Cyrus Baldwin Has Too Much Tea

Longtime Boston 1775 readers might recognize the name “Chris the Woburnite” in the comments, usually attached to choice observations and  stories from that old Middlesex County town. 

In real life that’s Chris Hurley, Revolutionary reenactor and researcher. And he generously offered a series of “guest blogger” articles sharing a story of Woburn’s Baldwin family. So let’s get started.

There were three kinds of tea in Boston near the end of 1773, here listed in decreasing level of unacceptability to the Boston Whigs:
  • Detested, new-duty British East India Company tea. Not available, due to premature steeping in the harbor.
  • Old-duty British East India Company tea. Tolerated for years, despite (unenforced) non-use agreements.
  • Smuggled (often Dutch) tea. Free of the taint of duty, but still tainted somewhat, by it being, well, tea.
At the very end of 1773, popular Whig sentiment simplified things by characterizing all tea as odious, which was bad news for Cyrus Baldwin, a Boston merchant of, among other things, tea. His advertisement in the 1 November Boston Gazette had proudly proclaimed in bold type: “Choice Souchong and Hyson Tea.”

Even though he was from a Whig-leaning family, Baldwin continued to advertise tea as the tea crisis deepened that fall. After all, he was not one of the hated new-duty consignees, and selling tea was his livelihood. Some Boston merchants had openly opposed the landing of the new-duty tea.

Some citizens in Boston accused those merchants of plotting to create scarcity, corner the tea market, and raise prices. They could have been talking about Cyrus Baldwin. He appears to have increased his stock of tea that season: when he advertised in the Boston Evening-Post on 20 December, he now included additional tea, some “Choice Bohea.”

In an attempt to render this offering acceptable, this new ad included a disclaimer: “The above Teas were imported before any of the East India Company’s tea arrived.” That continued to run into early January 1774.

Baldwin priced his tea at 18 shillings per pound. That was more than triple the price set on 29 December by the “principal dealers of teas in Boston”—those dealers being anxious to refute any charge of price gouging (as reported the 30 December Massachusetts Spy). But Baldwin’s 18s. price may have applied only to the high-class Hyson tea, and perhaps he priced his Bohea more reasonably.

In any event, those dealers also agreed not to sell any tea at all after 20 Jan 1774. Whether Cyrus Baldwin was then willingly in step with the association of tea dealers or not, his 20 January ad in the Massachusetts Spy no longer boasted tea.

But Cyrus Baldwin still had tea—too much tea. Even in early January 1774 he knew he couldn’t sell all the Bohea he had. What then to do with it? It did him little good in Boston. This valuable property could even have been in danger from the radical tea-burning element of the Patriot faction [Are you listening, Lexington and Charlestown?]. Where then to safely store it?

Luckily for Cyrus, he had a younger brother, Loammi, who lived on a farm in the nearby countryside town of Woburn. Loammi was a gentlemen of position there and on the town’s committee of correspondence, thus putting him beyond reproach. What better person to store the tea until it was marketable again? The brothers might also have been able to transport the tea to somewhere it could be readily sold. Loammi’s farm had at least one team of oxen and probably a number of wagons or carts. But first, could Cyrus get the tea out to Woburn?

TOMORROW: “Not intended to be smuggled”.

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