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The Tea Things of John and Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams, Benjamin Blythe, 1766. Massachusetts Historical Society
Abigail Adams by Benjamin Blythe

A year after the Boston Tea Rebellion, John Adams, serving in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, asked his friend Eldridge Gerry to deliver a parcel of tea to his beloved Abigail who was taking care of the Adams home back in Quincy. The preoccupied Mr. Gerry (who would become Vice-president under Monroe) mistakenly delivered the tea to his sister Mrs. Samuel Adams (Elizabeth), John’s cousin.

It was the correct clan but the wrong household.

Abigail unknowingly tasted the misdirected gift when she visited Elizabeth and was offered tea at a time when most Massachusetts ladies had sworn off the “pernicious herb.”

John Adams eventually learned that his tea gift had gone astray and, being a good husband, purchased a second canister in Philadelphia to be delivered by a more diligent courier.

Tea was drunk by the John and Abigail Adams both in the colonies and while they were in England. John sometimes had both coffee and tea at breakfast.

Watercolor painting of The Adams Home in Quincy, MA
The Adams Home in Quincy, MA

Abigail was keenly aware of tea’s political divisiveness following the arrival of the three ships bearing the East India Company’s 342 chests of Chinese teas in Boston Harbor.

On December 5, 1773, Abigail wrote to Mercy Otis:

The Tea that bainfull weed is arrived. Great and I hope Effectual opposition has been made to the landing of it.

The Adams family parlor in Quincy boasts a tea table with tea service.
The Adams family parlor in Quincy boasts a tea table with tea service.

Mr. Adams knew that the tea ritual played a significant role in the social life of American ladies as much as it did in England and France. His diary entry of June 21 1779, while on board The Sensible traveling from Europe to America contains this telling admission about the talents of American women:

This Morning I found Mr. Marbois recovered of his Sea Sickness. I fell into Conversation with him, about his illness, advised a Dish of Tea, which he readily accepted, told him he must learn to drink Tea in America in order to please the Ladies, who all drank Tea. That the american Ladies shone at the Tea Table. He said, he had heard they were very amiable and of agreable Conversation. I said Yes, but they could not dance, nor sing, nor play Musick, nor dress so well as the European Ladies.

President and Mrs. Adams arrived in Washington City in 1800 and moved into the unfinished president’s house. Abigail wrote to her daughter on November 21 and described an executive mansion with only six habitable rooms, many awaiting plaster. There was no central staircase and the First Lady used a line strung across the reception room to dry the family laundry. Alas, their household goods had not fared well during the trip from Quincy. Abigail wrote:

Many things were stolen, many are broken by the removal; amongst the number, my tea-china is more than half missing.

John Adams teapot, Chinese export c.1805
President John Adams teapot, Chinese

Her blue and white Chinese export china included teacups, without candles, and matching saucers. The Adams National Historic Site in Quincy, Massachusetts has in its collection a handsome drum-shaped teapot made in China that bears the presidential eagle and the initials “JA”.

This teapot with its intertwined double-handle and acorn-topped lid is similar to a Chinese-export teapot (c.1805) made in Jingdezhen, China for George Washington, now in the collection at Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

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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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