George Washington and Tea

general_george_washingtonAlthough tea drinking was considered unpatriotic during Revolutionary years, General George Washington must have enjoyed it while headquartered at the Morris-Jumel mansion during the Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16, 1776. His household inventory recorded several sets of Chinese and Wedgwood tea wares.

When a stash of tea was discovered hidden in some woods, Washington personally wrote orders for its distribution to his Colonial Army officers as mentioned in this directive from 1779 –

 …the tea is not included in the foregoing instruction, but is to be distributed as follows, reserving fifty pounds of the best quality for future disposal: one pound of the best kind to each General Officer, half a pound of the same to each field officer and head of a staff department and a quarter of a pound per man of the remainder to any other officer of the army who shall apply.

Early records from Mt Vernon include a December 1757 order of tea from England. Washington requested six pounds of best Hyson tea and six pounds of best green tea. This tea would steep in the six teapots he ordered earlier that year. Other tea orders included Chinese teas similar to those tossed into Boston Harbor during the 1773 tea rebellion: Bohea, Congou, Gunpowder, Imperial and Young Hyson.

The household inventory at Mt Vernon listed many and varied tea equipage and furnishings. These included tea caddies, tea boards, tea chests, teacups, pewter tea ware, teapots, tea sets, silver teaspoons, tea tables and a silver-plated tea urn.

Tea utensils could also be found in the Washington’s slave quarters. One visitor recalls spying a modest hut and seeing “A very poor chimney, a little kitchen furniture amid this misery—a tea-kettle and cups…”

Washington and Lafayette take tea at Mt Vernon

Washington and Lafayette take tea at Mt Vernon. Metropolitan Museum Art

Nelly Custis Lewis was Martha Washington’s granddaughter who was raised at Mt Vernon. She once wrote, “Later in the day, tea was served at sunset in summer and at candlelight in winter.”  A romanticized  1860 engraving by Thomas Oldham Barlow depicts George Washington  standing on the front porch of Mt Vernon with the visiting Marquis de Lafayette as Martha is about to pour tea for those in attendance.

It appears that the East India Company eventually forgave Washington for the unpleasantries suffered by their company during the revolution. They presented a monogrammed tea service to the Washingtons in 1796, each piece featuring Mrs. Washington’s initials at the center as well as the names of all 15 states in The Union at that time.

Excerpt from The Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson. Benjamin Press Release date: summer 2013