“China” enters Britain

It’s the late 1600’s and people are asking “What is this fine, white porcelain that is coming in from China on the tea boats?”  Crates of this porcelain is being offloaded from the ships and stacked on the piers.  But, what is it?  What is it for?  These crates would be stacked on the bottom of the hold in the ships to provide ballast as well as to provide a dry floor for the tea crates to sit on.

Dutch East India Company c.1620

Dutch East India Company c.1620

Although the Dutch East India Company did not import these items at that time, the ships’ captains realized their value to the newly-enamored, wealthy tea drinkers and began profiting from their sale on the black market.

As early as 1530, fine Chinese porcelain in the form of vases, figurines and bowls were given as gifts to the Aristocracy (and are still on display in various museums around the world).  Exotic items such as ostrich eggs, Turkish and Russian pottery, and Chinese porcelain were among Queen Mary’s and then Elizabeth’s most prized possessions.  The delicacy of fine Chinese porcelain was valued and appreciated over the rough, heavy British earthenware.

It was about this time that the word “Chinaware” was incorporated into the English language to describe these porcelain bowls, pots and cups.  By the 1700’s the demand for this fine porcelain had reached record numbers and the term “China” was being used by most people.  From the records of the Fleet Frigate, “205 chests of China and Japan ware and a great deal loose earthenware, was packed on board.”

In 1724 in “Tour Thru the Whole Island of Great Britain” Defoe wrote, “The Queen brought in the custom, as I may call it, of furnishing Houses with China-ware….piling their China upon the tops of cabinets, structures and every chimney piece.”  China-mania had begun!!

Painting by Arthur Devis, c. 1750

Painting by Arthur Devis, c. 1750

By the end of the 1700’s most of Europe had obtained a few pieces of this fine “China” and the practice of displaying these luxurious pieces came into play, hence the “China closet“.  Louis XIV was so enamored of this decorative tableware he ordered a complete set consisting of hundreds of pieces.

Although a few other colors were imported from China, it was the very popular blue and white porcelain bowls, pots and cups that were the most popular. The Dutch East India Company was now the sole importer for everything from the East, and as a result, all imports came through the ports in Holland. Dutch potters, observing the demand for these items, became inspired and began to create their own pottery, which became known as Delftware.  Colors, patterns and designs were copied directly from the Chinese, but slowly European images began to be used …. windmills, fish, swans, etc., and the first of new shapes took form. The best known was the creation of the “plate“.

English potters were desperate to create this fine white porcelain.  European potters had created a soft porcelain made with white clay and ground glass.  But how to create a hard porcelain that would stand up to the heat requirements of tea?  It was discovered that the ashes of calcined bones could act as a strengthening agent in the paste.  This then became known as fine “English porcelain” now identified as “bone China“.

Worcester porcelain teacup and saucer c.1700

Worcester porcelain teacup and saucer c.1700

The development of the pottery district in England came after bone China was perfected.  From Davenport to Spode to Minton to Wedgewood, most of the successful potters located in the area of Stoke-upon-Trent.

I’ve seen other blogs which credit Robert Adams as the inventor of the tea cup handle.  Unfortunately, I’ve never found any documentation to support that theory.  Handles on tea cups came into use as soon as the Chinese realized that Europeans drank their tea much hotter than they did and in larger ‘bowls’.  Handles started appearing on ‘tea bowls’ as early as the 1700’s.  It was quite common before then to simply pour the tea from the ‘tea bowl’ into the accompanying saucer to cool, and then to drink from that.  After tea cups had handles, it was deemed only the lower class would ever drink from the saucer.

Needless to say, “tea” and “tea equipage” at this point in history was only for the upper classes.  A London magazine in 1744 noted, “it could cost more to maintain a fashionable tea table, with its expensive tea and utensils, than to keep two children and a nurse.” Despite this expense, tea continued to play an essential role in the social life of the British and the world.
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References:  Antique English Pottery, TEA East and West by Rupert Faulkner, Comparative Arts & Media Studies, Specialization in Design Culturesby Irene Maldini


Orange Pekoe?

During my 15 years of tea lectures, exhibitions and shows where I’d present information about tea’s origins, types of teas and their unique properties, classics vs flavored, health benefits, steeping instructions, folk lore and traditions, inevitably at the end of the presentation someone would ask me if I sold “orange pekoe” tea.  Aghhhhhhhhhhh!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a big intake of air, and  s-l-o-w-l-y regaining my composure, I’d say “Yes, I do.  Would you like to purchase some?”

Orange pekoe tea!!
I have Estate teas, Chinese Keemuns and Yunnans, Kenyan teas, Darjeelings and Assams, teas from Sri Lanka and Nepal – all grades!  I have English Breakfast, Irish Breakfast, Scottish Breakfast.  I have blends with Assams and Darjeelings.  I have blends with Keemuns and Assams.  I have blends with Keemuns, Ceylons and Darjeelings, but, no, they want that “orange pekoe”.

I loved my customers and I appreciated each and every purchase.  If they were interested, I really did try to give them a bit more information.  A knowledgeable customer is going to make a more educated purchase (hopefully).  But, how has this name, Orange Pekoe, become synonymous with good quality black tea (and, yes, despite my attempts to educate otherwise, some people do believe it is orange flavored).

Let’s start at the beginning.  Tea originated in China.  But it was the British industrialists who began to capitalize on the burgeoning tea market.  In China, after the tea leaves are plucked, they are withered naturally, rolled and shaped by hand, wok fired and then sorted for size and quality.

Sorting Room in Chinese Factory.

Sorting Room in Chinese Factory.

This was far too slow and time consuming for the British industrialists.  It wasn’t long after the British established plantations in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) before these innovators created machines to do this work.  Heated tables for withering were invented.  Rolling machines were invented.  But having machines do the work created another problem.  The whole leaf was now broken into particles which required a process to ‘sort’ the different leaf sizes.  This led to a process of using fine screens (much like window screens) of various sizes to separate out these particles by size.  Now there was a need to have a standardized sorting or grading system, which would identify the leaf by its size.  With every solution came another problem.  A grading system had to be created.

The system began quite simply with a single letter representing the descriptive grade.  Today, however, the grading system is much more complicated with all types of fancy add-ons.  Again, this grading system is not for Chinese teas, but only for teas from India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, etc. The letters are:

S = Special
F = Fancy
T = Tippy
G = Golden
F = Flowery
B = Broken
O = Orange
P = Pekoe

Oops, did I say “O = Orange and P = Pekoe”?  Could it be that “orange pekoe” is a grade or size of tea, such as “tippy golden”?  BINGO!

Tea Grades

Tea Grades

Let’s start at the top of the list, assuming SFTG was probably the best ‘grade’, wouldn’t BOP be the lowest?  Hmmmm.  This doesn’t necessarily mean this tea wouldn’t taste good.  It does mean, however, that it was/is the lowest grade of tea.

All the letters seem to have a logical description for a leaf … “special”, “fancy”, “tippy”, “golden”, “flowery”.  But “orange” and “pekoe” … where did these strange terms come from and what exactly do they mean?

A Chinese belief is that the tea was originally scented with orange blossoms, hence the use of the word  “orange”.  Plausible but highly unlikely.  A more likely explanation is the term “orange refers to the Dutch royal House of Orange-Nassau.  Tea was first brought to Europe by the Dutch in 1675 and it is believed that the Dutch tea traders coined the term to imply a higher classification of tea, suitable for their nobility.

The term “pekoe” (which is pronounced peck-o and not peek-o) could be derived from the mispronunciation of the Chinese words for “white hair” which are “bai hao”.  “Bai hao” refers to the downy-like white hairs on the leaf just below the bud, which would be the bai hao leaf or in pidgin English, the pekoe leaf.tprint

The next size down from the pekoe leaf would be the orange leaf; then the souchong leaf.  The more mature the leaf, the less flavor the tea would contain.  As a result, a fine plucking would consist of the unopened bud, or tip, along with the next leaf or two leaves, resulting in “orange pekoe”.  After processing and sorting the leaves, you might end up with BOP, FOP, GFOP, TGFOP, FTGFOP or even SFTGFOP.  The more letters, the better the grade of tea.

All this can be quite fascinating or painfully boring to you.  The real question is how did the average tea lover get to believe that ‘orange pekoe’ tea was the best tea on the market?  For that we have to look at that Scottish marketing genius, Thomas Lipton.

It was 1850, and although still very expensive, Great Britain and the new Americas were now consumed by tea, and Thomas Johnston Lipton is born.  The youngest of five children Thomas Lipton was born in Scotland to Irish immigrants.  Although not an academic, Thomas learned his three R’s and looked to move into the business world for his future.  After a few failed encounters, Thomas found a job he loved, working as a cabin boy.  This love of water and ships would continue throughout his life.  Saving his money, at the age of 15, Lipton booked steerage passage on a steamship bound for New York.  A few directionless jobs later, Lipton managed to secure a position as assistant at a successful grocery store in New York City.  He was fascinated by American advertising and marketing and by how different American grocery stores were compared to the British stores.

Back in Glasgow, Thomas’ parents had opened a small grocery shop.  After three years in NYC, at the age of 18, Thomas now returned to Glasgow to work in his parent’s shop.  It didn’t last long because he wanted to replicate the NYC grocery store he had worked in.  Two years later, Lipton opened his own store.

Thomas  Lipton

Thomas Lipton

Preferring to deal direct with the producers of the food, and not the middlemen, Lipton was soon buying direct from farmers.  His Americanized concept along with eliminating the middleman was successful.  It wasn’t long before he had opened many more grocery stores and with the opening of every new store, Lipton would create outrageous advertising campaigns.  One Christmas Lipton announced that his cheese would contain sovereigns (about 20 shillings or half a one pound note) and half sovereigns.  When the cheese went on sale, within two hours every last piece of cheese was sold. These cheeses became so large and so much a part of Lipton’s annual Christmas displays that the manager of Lipton’s Nottingham shop hired an elephant to transport the cheese through the town.

Vintage advertisement for Lipton Ceylon Tea.

Vintage advertisement for Lipton Ceylon Tea.

With over 300 stores, Thomas now decided to turn his attention to tea.  Continuing with his theory of cutting out the middleman, Lipton decided to visit plantations in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and learn the process himself.  This was the time when the coffee blight struck the coffee plantations in Ceylon and the coffee crops were wiped out.  Within a short period of time, Lipton scooped up five defunct coffee plantations and created tea gardens …. thus becoming the grower, the producer, the middleman, the wholesaler and the retailer!

Lipton was masterful, he made his tea affordable to everyone.  He did not stop with just selling his tea in his own shops, Lipton distributed his tea everywhere, exhibiting Lipton Teas at the London and Paris world fairs, continuing his relationship with American grocers, and opening corporate offices in Hoboken, NJ.

thomas lipton orange pekoe“Direct from the tea garden to the tea pot.”  Who wouldn’t want the freshest tea possible?  Soon the famous goatee and captain’s hat became associated with good quality tea and was found in cupboards all around the World.  And what could he call his tea to make it seem as if it was the best quality available ….. how about calling it “ORANGE PEKOE”.

References:  Liquid Jade by Beatrice Hohenegger,  Mitchell Library, Harney & Sons Guide to Tea, Wikipedia.

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Tea Dances

Blackpool …..?  Hubby kept telling me about this city on the west coast of England.  Growing up he had heard much about this seaside tourist destination but had never been there.  Really? Blackpool?  Just the name conjures up images of splintered boardwalks, gaping piers held up by rusted columns , graffiti-covered buildings, and old, yellowed posters on every signpost.  Not so!  (The city was actually named Blackpool because of the color of the water that ran over the peat bogs before draining into the Irish Sea.)

So what does any of this have to do with tea dances??   Blackpool was a sleepy, little seaside village until the advent of railroads in the mid 1800’s.   People started to believe that the sea was not something to be feared, but could actually be healthful.   Wealthy merchants, landowners and aristocrats began to travel hundreds of miles to ‘bathe’ in these waters.  They would also drink the seawater as a curative.    It didn’t take long for entrepreneurs to realize the economic potential of turning this little fishing village, in particular, into a seaside resort destination.   Soon hotels began to be built.  Street lighting was installed.   One of the country’s first amusement parks was erected.   And with more development  came more people.  Blackpool soon became the most prominent seaside destination for the north of England, and subsequently all of Europe.

By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea,
You and I, you and I, oh! how happy we’ll be …

This was the late 1800’s when England was enthralled with ‘tea’.   Among the upper classes, ‘tea’ had become the nucleus for social gatherings everywhere, throughout this country and Europe.   No longer was it just a beverage.  It was now an activity.  Also taking the world by storm at that time was the “dance”.   From London to Edinburgh to Newcastle to Blackpool, dance halls were opening everywhere.  These dance halls were not ordinary rooms, but were elegantly decorated galleries where membership was required … where tea and small sandwiches were served on the finest china …  where for an hour or two you would forget your troubles and dance ever so graciously to the band that was playing all the newest songs.  London had The Four Hundred Club and the Waldorf Hotel, among others.  Edinburgh had the Grand Hotel.  Newcastle had Tilley’s Room.  And Blackpool had the elegant Tower Ballroom.

blackpool tower2

This spectacular dance hall located in the Blackpool Tower was designed by architect  Frank Matcham, world renown for his creations of masterful theaters across Europe and the U.K.

The British elite were enthralled with this newly-revived entertainment and, in particular, the outrageous dance, which originated in Spain, called the “tango”.   Although the waltz, quick-step, and fox trot were very popular, it was the daring tango which became de rigueur at what was then becoming known in the dance clubs as ‘Tango Teas’ or ‘Thé Tangos’.  What could be more fun on a typical dreary English afternoon than to drop in to a lively dance club with your friends for a warming pot of tea and a steamy tango?  This exotic and risque dance took the country by storm as everyone tried to master the intricacies of the steps.

The Daily Edancingxpress reported “tango teas becoming so great a craze that one wonders if Mrs. Brown of Brixton will ever again be content to stay at home for plain drawing room tea without the accompaniment of a few tangos and a dress parade of two.”

World War I and the advent of the ‘cocktail hour’ saw the end of the nation’s obsession with tea dances.  But it hasn’t gone away completely.  It is still alive … in Blackpool … at the Tower Ballroom. Yes, Blackpool, where tea dances are still part of the Tower Ballroom tradition. Everyday the Ballroom hosts tea dances (as well as special events) while serving you an elegantly presented afternoon tea.  You may visit any day and participate in this classic tradition.   Just remember to put on your dancing shoes and dress appropriately.  You won’t regret it!

Take a look . . . Blackpool’s Tea Dances

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References:  A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew, The Afternoon Tea Book by Michael Smith, the Blackpool Tower, WikiTravel U.K., Victorian Parlors by Patricia Mitchell

Earl Grey ….. the man, the tea!

vintage tea photo

What is it about Earl Grey tea that makes it the most popular tea in the world?  Having been a purveyor of tea for 15 years, it has always stymied me.   There are so-o-o many tasty teas out there, but Earl Grey lovers want Earl Grey tea and nothing more.  Where did this tea come from and how did it achieve such loyalty?

For me, the history and legend of Earl Grey is far more interesting than the tea.  Born March 13, 1764, Charles Grey was the second son of General Charles Grey of Southwick, County Durham, England.   With an impressive education at Eton and Trinity College, he found himself attracted to politics and, at the age of 22, became one of the youngest members elected to Parliament.  With his youthful, idealistic beliefs and strong political stands, he soon became a prominent figure in the Whig party.  Although viewed as extreme at the time, Grey was able to lead many reforms over the next few years.  In 1806 the Whig party was disbanded, and although Grey remained very active in politics, it wasn’t until 1830, when the Whigs were returned to power, that Grey was elected as Prime Minister.

Described as a man of many contradictions (classic Aries),  headstrong, ambitious and impulsive, yet indecisive, pessimistic and at times and foolish, Charles married Mary Elizabeth Ponsonby in 1794.  On the surface, Grey appeared to be a devoted husband and father with a family numbering 15 children (six daughters and ten sons).  Prior to his marriage, and some say throughout, he was a notorious ladies’ man.  His most public affair was with the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Spencer, with whom he produced a child in 1792.


Among the many impressive pieces of legislation that Grey’s ministry was able to accomplish were:

  • the Abolition of Slavery Act
  • the Factory Act
  • the ending of the East India Company monopoly
  • ending the farm workers ‘Swing Riots’
  • a state-funded grant for the building of schools
  • allowing marriages to take place in non-Conformist chapels
  • the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act reforming child labor laws

Needless to say, this man was an impressive figure who made quite a contribution to England’s political environment and culture, but when and where did the “tea” connection come from?

Let’s start at the beginning …..
The first chests of tea arrived from China at the docks in London in 1645.  It was, at this time, a fashionable trend among the aristocratic elite to enjoy this exotic beverage.   Over the next 100 years, Great Britain and the new America became obsessed with “tea”.  It had gone from being the beverage of the upper class to the daily drink of commoners.  The East India Company, one of the largest financial monopolies in the world, was formed by Queen Elizabeth I to handle all the trade with China, primarily the ‘tea’ trade.

ancient china tea production 1

The consumption of tea by the Brits had increased from 1 million pounds per year to over 20 million pounds per year.  To pay for this tea, the East India Company offered the Chinese textiles.  The Chinese were far more advanced in manufacturing than the British and did not want such inferior goods. They wanted to be paid in silver bullion.  At the beginning, this wasn’t a problem for the British because silver was in great supply; but with the loss of the American colonies, access to South America, where the silver was mined, was becoming more and more difficult.  The British had some opium plantations in India and soon realized the answer to their “tea” problem was to increase their opium trade with the Chinese.

This was about the time when Lord Grey came into power.  But how Grey became associated with the tea, especially one named for him, is unclear.   There are many legends and discussions, none of which have been verified …..

  • The most familiar is that Lord Grey traveled to China, and during the trip, he, or one of his servants, saved the life of a son of a Chinese mandarin from drowning and was given this tea blend as a “thank you”.
  • Another similar version of this tale has the son of an Indian Raja being rescued from a tiger by one of Lord Grey’s servants.  In both tales, Lord Grey was given the tea as a way of saying “thank you”.
  • One story tells how this tea blend was created by accident when a gift of tea and bergamot fruits were shipped together from China and the tea absorbed the fruit flavor during shipping.
  • Another story says the tea was named after Charles by Jackson’s of Piccadilly, who blended the tea “to meet the wishes of the former Earl of Grey”.earl-grey-1

The legends also describe Lord Grey as having enjoyed this tea so much, he asked a London tea merchant to try to replicate the flavor.  The Prime Minister being so pleased, he allowed this custom-blended tea to be sold to select customers.  Interestingly, in 1837 (three years after Lord Grey left political life), London tea merchants, Brocksop & Company faced criminal charges for adding bergamot to lower quality tea in order to misrepresent it as a superior product (at a higher price).   Would Lord Grey really have endorsed an inferior tea?  I highly doubt it.

My theory is …. the early founders of London tea salons, Thomas Twining and Robert Jackson were both shameless self-promoters and marketeers.  With British tea shops becoming very popular and competitive, they had to do something to draw attention to their shops and the teas they sold.  What better way than to create a specialty blends in honor of a dignitary perhaps or member of the royal family?   The “Queen Victoria” blend, “Royal Wedding” blend, and possibly the “Earl Grey” blend.

Twining and Jackson both took credit for creating the now familiar blend which uses the natural oils from the peel of the bergamot fruit to flavor the Chinese blend of black leaves, but will we ever know?  What we do know is that this tea, which bears the name of the Prime Minister of England, is one of the most popular flavored teas in the world today (although I don’t know why).

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Resources:  Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. , Wikipedia, the Victorian Web, The Book of Tea by Anthony Burgess, TEA by Lydia Gautier, TEA by Roy Moxham