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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Monday, December 05, 2022

Taking the Measure of Tea Chests

In addition to the various samples of tea leaves I’ve discussed, relics of the Boston Tea Party include supposed remnants of the chests that tea came in.

One highly visible example is a lacquered tea chest donated by the Foster family to the Massachusetts Daughters of the American Revolution in 1902. Tradition said it was collected by Hopestill Foster on the Dorchester shore in 1773.

The state chapter loaned that box to the national organization’s museum in Washington, D.C. In 2006, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported that this tea chest was the most famous item in the museum’s Massachusetts Room, itself a replica of the Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington.

In Treasure Chests: The Legacy of Extraordinary Boxes (2003), Lon Schleining reported that the Foster chest was “quite small, about a foot high and wide by about a foot and a half long, made of 1/2-in.-thick wood and painted with red and black Oriental scenes.” He added, “Even full of tea, one of these chests would have weighed only a few pounds.”

In fact, the East India Company’s list of lost inventory, reproduced back here and analyzed by Charles Bahne, shows that full chests of Bohea tea “contained an average of 353 pounds per chest.” They were lined with lead and built to survive long sea voyages.

Bahne noted that the cargo also included four higher-priced grades of tea shipped in “quarter chests,” and those averaged between 68 and 86 pounds of tea.

Dan Du’s doctoral thesis, “This World in a Teacup: Chinese-American Tea Trade in the Nineteenth Century,” quotes another period source:
During the adventure to Canton in 1791, Jonathan Donnison, Captain of American ship General Washington, detailed the measuring of the tea chests for Hyson, Hyson [Skin], Bohea, and Souchong teas in his account book.
That account book is now in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum. It shows a half chest of Bohea tea was nearly three feet long, two feet wide, and over a foot tall. Chests of more expensive Hyson and Souchong teas were closer to the dimensions of the Foster family chest, but still larger.

Most important, the chests that the East India Company shipped to America were utilitarian containers meant to go to tea wholesalers. They were not decorative household objects like the Foster family chest. Which, incidentally, shows no signs of having been hatcheted or left soaking in saltwater for hours.

Interestingly, a 2013 issue of South Boston Today reports a completely different story of Hopestill Foster’s family and the tea destruction:
the Widow Foster became famous during the Boston Tea Party. While it seems far away today, in 1770 it was ocean from First Street to the British tea ships at anchor. When the “Indians” dumped the tea, at least one chest floated to the area around F Street. A workman on the Foster estate dragged the chest to a barn, lit a fire and tried to dry it. Widow Foster discovered him and made him burn the tea, chest and all.
(The Tea Party was, of course, in 1773.)

[ADDENDUM: As the comment from Patrick Sheary below reports, the museum has concluded that this chest dates from after the Boston Tea Party, and it’s no longer on display in the Massachusetts Room. Older sources still mention it as a Tea Party relic, but the latest study is more exact.]


Unknown said...

May I add that the DAR Museum does not interpret this box as having ever been at the Boston Tea Party. It dates between 1790 and 1810 well after the 1773 Tea Party event. Elaborate and costly lacquered chests like this were given as presentation gifts and would have been packed with high quality tea. The chest is currently in storage but can be seen on our DAR Museum collections online database. Many thanks, Patrick Sheary, Curator of Furnishings and Historic Interiors, DAR Museum.

J. L. Bell said...

Thank you for that update, Mr. Sheary! I couldn’t find the chest in the database, but I may have been using the wrong parameters. I also spent a few minutes looking at the website’s photo of the current Massachusetts Room trying to sense if the chest was just out of range to the left, as it had once been displayed. It’s good to know the research continues, and I’ve updated the posting accordingly.

Christopher Davis said...

This appears to be the page for the tea chest on the DAR's website. I found it by searching "tea chest" in their collections.

Christopher Davis said...

Thank you so much for sharing Dan Du's dissertation! I'm really enjoying reading it. I'm especially intrigued by the tea chest measurements he reports from the manifest of the "George Washington" (1790). On the one hand they very neatly line up with and corroborate measurements I've found or deduced from other sources, and on the other hand they open up new questions to pursue. I do feel ready to finally make replica whole and quarter chests this year though! I'm excited to share the process.