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The Tea Things of George Washington

Was George Washington a tea drinker?

Yes! Every man of means – whether living in England or the Colonies – was schooled in proper tea drinking. Even as a bachelor, George Washington acquired choice household essentials which exemplified his gentility and position in Virginia society.

One of his bachelor tea sets (shown above) was the popular pattern Famille rose, or overglaze polychrome enamel, depicting scenes of women and children in landscapes that were popular on Chinese export tea wares after 1750. Such decoration appealed to Western consumers’ desires for exotic, and often playful, imagery on their imported porcelains.

Washington tea chest from the Smithsonian
George Washington's tea chest, 14x14x8. Image courtesy of The Smithsonian.

Washington showed the height of elegance in serving Chinese tea imported from London. We see in a December 1757 order of tea where Washington requested six pounds of best Hyson tea and six pounds of best regular green tea. This tea would steep in the six teapots he ordered earlier that year. Other tea orders included Chinese teas similar to those that would be tossed into Boston Harbor during the 1773 tea rebellion: Bohea, Congou and Young Hyson.

Almost all Chinese tea was packed in simple wooden chests which weighed as much as 350 pounds. These chests were often inspected and re-packed upon arrival in the East India’s Company’s warehouses located on the River Thames in London.

More expensive teas – such as singlo green tea – were packed in smaller custom chests that were hand-painted in China. The Smithsonian has a George Washington tea chest, complete with brass closure, in its collection at the National Museum of American History.

Washington tea pot from Mt Vernon
A Chinese teapot with traditional intertwined handle. Courtesy of Mt. Vernon.

As the Revolutionary War drew to a close, French and American officers formed the Society of the Cincinnati in the name of mutual support and friendship. The fraternity’s name was inspired by the 5th-century B.C.E. Roman Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who left his plow to defend Rome in battle, afterward returning to his farm. Washington, who resumed a private life at Mount Vernon after the war, was the Society’s first President General.

The former president perhaps sought to perpetuate his image as the modern-day Cincinnatus when he purchased an extensive Chinese export porcelain service decorated with a simplified version of the society’s insignia – a gold eagle badge bearing an oval medallion containing a depiction of Cincinnatus receiving his sword from the Roman Senators. The majority of items in this unique set feature the trumpeting figure of Fame holding aloft the insignia.


Excerpt from A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew & Bruce Richardson, Benjamin Press

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Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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