What’s in your cup?

Victorian Tea Chest

The timeline is England, late-18th century.  Tea has found its way from the table of the aristocracy to the table of the every man.  Gone are the days when tea was served to only men in English coffeehouses.  In the homes of the aristocracy, tea now is locked away in elaborately-carved wooden tea chests; the key kept safe by the “lady of the house” should the chambermaid, the footman or the butler decide to help him or herself.  Tea now is also being enjoyed in almost every home, tea room and workplace. Maid servants are enjoying a ‘tea break’ twice a day … with an allowance taken from their wages to pay for the tea.  Apprentices in manufacturing plants are allocated a parlor where they can have a twice daily tea break.  Children in orphanages are given tea with milk and sugar.

1700 teaNot everyone, however, thinks this ‘tea drinking’ is appropriate for the lower classes.  Jonas Hanway in A JOURNAL OF EIGHT DAYS JOURNEY wrote “The use of tea descended to the Pleboean order among us, about the beginning of the century … men seem to have lost their stature, and comeliness, and women their beauty.  Your very chambermaids have lost their bloom, I suppose by sipping tea …  It is the curse of this nation ….”

He wasn’t alone.  William Cobbett wrote in COTTAGE ECONOMY, “The tea drinking has done a great deal in bringing this nation into the state of misery in which it now is.  It must be evident to every one that the practice of tea drinking must render the frame feeble, and unfit to encounter hard labor or severe weather.”

By the mid-1800’s, a professional man (doctor, lawyer) might earn £50 a year, while the average workman was only earning about 20 shillings a week.   A live-in chambermaid might earn £5 per year, while the butler of the house would earn £20 .  With Tea selling for more than £26 a pound, how was anyone ever going to afford this beverage?  One word …. “smouch“.

We might call it recycling, they called it “smouch“.   Servants in the royal and affluent households, as well as workers in coffee houses, would take the used tea leaves and sell them through the back door to unscrupulous dealers.  These “smouch” dealers would then add things like tree leaves, sheep’s dung and saw dust as fillers.  They would color the leaves with iron sulphate, verdigris and copper.  They would dry this mixture and then sell the “smouch” back to the tea merchants.  It is believed that within an eight mile area, approximately 20 tons of “smouch” was manufactured every year.  This flourishing underground market, in addition to smuggling, is what made it possible for tea to reach the commoner.

METHOD OF MAKING SMOUCH WITH ASH LEAVES TO MIX WITH BLACK TEAS”
“When gathered they are first dried in the sun then baked.  They are
next put on the floor and trod upon until the leaves are small, then
lifted and steeped in copperas, with sheep’s dung, after which, being
dried on the floor, they are fit for use.”
Taken from Richard Twining’s “Observations on the Tea
and Window Act and on the Tea Trade, 1785”.

tea cartoonThe tea that was being imported from China and enjoyed now by all classes was green tea … not black tea as so many people associate with Great Britain.   It was what we now refer to as “gunpowder” green tea.  Black tea came about because the Chinese were becoming just as unscrupulous as the “smouch” dealers.   The Chinese, knowing that people expected their green teas to have a bluish tint when steeped began adding gypsum to their tea just before firing the leaves, giving their cheaper teas the right color.

Partly due to the fact that forests were being completely decimated in order to manufacture “smouch”, and due to the fact that poisonous dyes were being used, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1725 banning the mixing of tea leaves with any other leaves. This Act went completely unnoticed, which prompted another edict from the government in 1777 banning the sale of “smouch” altogether.

Tea drinkers eventually became concerned about some of the more bizarre ingredients they were ingesting.  When you think of all the copper, lead, gypsum and iron that people were drinking, sheep’s dung doesn’t sound so bad!  The public became so concerned about these poisonous dyes, they began asking for ‘black’ tea … which is why black tea is the predominate tea enjoyed throughout Great Britain.  And with smuggling so rampant at that time “smouch” was no longer an issue.

So how about it …… would you like a little “smouch” with your tea?

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References:  World Wide Words, Boston Tea Party, The Victorian Web, The Farm Antiques, Twinings

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