Boston Replicated London’s Taste for the Tea Ritual

As East India goods found their way to the cities of Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Williamsburg, newspaper advertisements there reflected the availability of various luxury items “Just imported from London” noted in bold letters. One of the most striking examples of the influence of this global commerce was the production of japanned furniture during the eighteenth century.

1787 London Illustration, Courtesy of The British Museum

1787 London Illustration, Courtesy of The British Museum

A lacquered and gilded finish could take months to complete, making many items rare in the places where they were made–Japan, China, India, and Southeast Asia. To satisfy Western demand for the glowing objects that usually featured Chinese motifs of flowers, figures, or landscapes on a highly polished background of ebony or scarlet, the English developed a technique using repeated layers of varnish that approximated the Asian finish and called it japanning.

In 1688 John Stalker and George Parker published a lengthy manual entitled A Treatise of Japaning and Varnishi. Like most English and Americans at the time, the authors seemed to have an imperfect understanding of Asian geography because they used the terms Japan and India interchangeably. The authors claimed their text would save purchasers from poor draftsmen, who “impose upon the Gentry such Stuff and Trash,” and would allow the “nobility and gentry” to obtain “whole Setts of Japan-work, whereas otherwise they were forc’t to content themselves with perhaps a Screen, a Dressing-box, or Drinking-bowl.”

This furniture fad quickly spread to Boston where Robert Jenkins sold “Japan’d Tea Boards (trays) and Waiters,” from his location on the north side of the Town House on King Street, Boston’s leading commercial thoroughfare, which connected the social and political center of town with the commercial wharves and warehouses at the harbor. This sophisticated thoroughfare was known as the epicenter of the burgeoning Atlantic trade in New England.

In the stylish homes of Boston and throughout provincial America, the ritual of taking tea reenacted and reinforced the growth of an Anglo-American culture. But it was a culture based on a global circulation of goods, as japanned furniture attested. Tea drinking, often dispensed from specially designed tables, some of them japanned as well, gathered together goods from around the globe–tea and porcelain from China, sugar from the Caribbean, sweetmeats flavored with spices from Indonesia, all arrayed on a Turkish carpet and served by an African slave to gentlemen and ladies dressed in fabrics from India and China.

The ensemble of objects might also have included Asian modeled cane chairs and have been set off by the hybrid fantasy of Chinese style wallpaper. Bostonians understood tea not as an exotic curiosity, but as one of the many global products that signaled their participation in a polite and worldly culture modeled after the lifestyles of their English cousins.

Excerpt from A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson, coming this September from Benjamin Press and available in the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum retail store.