A Brief History of Tea

By Tim Lambert

Early Tea

According to legend tea was first discovered in 2737 BC by a Chinese emperor called Shen Nung when some leaves blew into hot water. In reality, tea drinking was discovered much later in history (we are not sure exactly when) and we don’t know who discovered it. From China tea spread to Japan. During the Middle Ages, the Japanese developed their tea ceremony.

The first Europeans to drink tea were the Dutch. Their merchants brought tea back from East Asia in 1610. Tea was first drunk in England in the mid-17th century. It was first sold in England in 1657. In 1658 tea was advertised in England as China drink.

However, it was a Portuguese woman named Catherine of Braganza who made tea drinking popular. She married King Charles II in Portsmouth in 1662. Catherine was fond of tea and thanks to her it soon became fashionable. In the late 17th century people began adding milk to tea.

Tea in the 18th Century

In the 18th century, the English became confirmed tea drinkers. The tea table became a common item of furniture. However, in the late 18th century, the British imposed a tax on tea in the North American colonies, which was bitterly resented by the colonists. Then in 1773, the British East India Company sent tea to the American colonies to sell. Three ships were sent to Boston with 298 chests of tea. However, Boston was a center of resistance to the British. On 16 December 1773 men dressed as Indians boarded the ships and threw the tea into the sea.

In the 18th century, it was common to adulterate tea by adding leaves from other plants. Laws against adulterating tea were passed in 1724, 1730, and 1776. (Adulterating food and drink was common in Britain until the late 19th century!).

Meanwhile, during the 18th century, tea was heavily taxed. As a result,, smuggling tea was very common in England. However, in 1784 a Commutation Act greatly reduced the tax on tea, making it much cheaper and ending tea smuggling.

In the 18th century, 19th century, and early 20th century tea was kept in caddies made of wood, metal, china, or tortoiseshell. Early caddies had locks on them. The word caddy is from the Malay word kati, which was a measure of weight.

Modern Tea

Tea was originally grown in China. It wasn’t grown commercially in India until the 19th century. The first Indian tea was sold in Britain in 1839. From the 1870s tea was grown commercially in Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Earl Grey tea is named after the politician Earl Grey (1764-1845). He was prime minister of Britain from 1830-1834.

Iced tea was invented in the USA in the late 19th century. It was popularized when it was sold at the St Louis World’s Fair in 1904.

During the Second World War, tea was rationed in Britain. From July 1940 you were only allowed 2 ounces a week. Furthermore, tea was rationed for more than 12 years. The tea ration did not finally end until October 1952. Worse milk and sugar were also rationed during the 1940s. Sugar rationing was introduced in January 1940 and it did not end until 1953! (Food rationing did not finally end in England until 1954). Today tea is one of the world’s most popular drinks.

Last Revised 2024