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Was Tea Drunk at Breakfast in Colonial Boston?

Morning Tea Print by Richard Houston, 1750
Morning Tea. Print by Richard Houston, 1750. Courtesy of British Museum

English customs were generally imitated in this country, particularly in the urban centers of Boston where, as he visited in 1740, Joseph Bennett observed that “the ladies here visit, drink tea and indulge every little piece of gentility to the height of the mode and neglect the affairs of their families with as good grace as the finest ladies in London.”

English modes and manners remained a part of the social behavior after the colonies became an independent nation. Visitors to the newly formed United States were apt to remark about such habits as tea drinking, as did Brissot de Warville in 1788, that “in this, as in their whole manner of living, the Americans, in general, resemble the English.” Therefore, it is not surprising to find that during the 18th century the serving of tea privately in the morning and socially in the afternoon or early evening was an established custom in many households.

The naturalist Peter Kalm, during his visit to North America in the mid-18th century, noted that tea was a breakfast beverage in both Pennsylvania and New York. From the predominantly Dutch town of Albany in 1749, he wrote that “their breakfast is tea, commonly without milk.” At another time, Kalm stated:

With the tea was eaten bread and butter or buttered bread toasted over the coals so that the butter penetrated the whole slice of bread. In the afternoon about three o’clock tea was drunk again in the same fashion, except that bread and butter was not served with it.

This tea-drinking schedule was followed throughout the colonies. In Boston, the people “take a great deal of tea in the morning,” have dinner at two o’clock, and “about five o’clock they take more tea, some wine, Madeira [and] punch,” reported the Baron Cromot du Bourg during his visit in 1781. The Marquis de Chastellux confirms his countryman’s statement about teatime, mentioning that the Americans take “tea and punch in the afternoon.”

George the first c. 1725
Tea Party in the Time of George I, c.1725 Colonial Williamsburg

During the first half of the 18th century, the limited amount of tea available at prohibitively high prices restricted its use to a proportionately small segment of the total population of the colonies. About mid-century, however, tea was beginning to be drunk by more and more people, as supplies increased and costs decreased, due in part to the propaganda and merchandising efforts of the East India Company.

According to Peter Kalm, tea, chocolate, and coffee had been “wholly unknown” to the Swedish population of Pennsylvania and the surrounding area before the English arrived, but in 1748 these beverages “at present constitute even the country people’s daily breakfast.” A similar observation was made a few years later by Israel Acrelius:

Tea, coffee, and chocolate are so general as to be found in the most remote cabins, if not for daily use, yet for visitors, mixed with Muscovado, or raw sugar.

Information courtesy of Tea Drinking in 18th-Century America: Its Etiquette and Equipage By Rodris Roth. The Smithsonian.

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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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