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11 Jan
Fri / 2013

A Cuppa Tea

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I can’t live without a cup of coffee in the morning, but I also love a good cup of tea (my favorites are Tazo’s Zen and Stash’s Premium Green). While today tea is an incredibly popular drink, perhaps to some extent because of recent research into its varied health benefits and high antioxidant concentrations, it has an extensive social history, beyond the 1773 ruckus in Boston Harbor.

Tea is a staple drink with worldwide consumption. Tea was probably initially consumed in the Himalayas, and then spread to China, where it was first referenced in the first century BC. In the 16th and 17th centuries – an era of growing world exploration and globalization - tea entered the European consciousness.   During that period, tea was still an extremely expensive commodity and therefore a luxury good.  Gradually, the price of tea dropped and it became a staple good. During the 18th century a “tea mania” hit Britain, and there was so much tea that everyone there could drink one or two cups a day. 
 
Tea became gendered and intertwined with social ritual in England. A “coffee mania” had hit the nation in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and coffeehouses catering to men and the intellectual elite were commonplace. The new craze for tea spawned the introduction of teahouses, and the drink itself is often characterized as feminine, domestic, and refined.  As author Tom Standage explains in A History of the World in 6 Glasses, Thomas Twining (of, you guessed it, Twinings Tea) notably opened a shop next to a coffeehouse where “Great ladies flocked…in order to sip the enlivening beverage in small cups for which they paid their shillings.” The parallel locations of the coffeehouse and teahouse imply a parallel consumer.
 
Traditionally, tea is an infusion of boiling water and the leaves of the Camellia sinensis. Green tea is made from fresh leaves, and black tea is made from leaves that have been oxidized.  Interestingly, not only is tea made from boiled water, but it also has antibacterial properties. Together, these two factors dramatically decreased waterborne diseases in England in the 18th century.  
 
The introduction of tea to Europe not only spawned new tea-drinking rituals, and a commodity market, it also influenced the material culture of the 18th century with the production of accoutrements necessary to the rituals. Teapots, cups, urns, trays, and furniture were all made with tea in mind. Subsequently, collections like Rienzi’s feature these decorative arts objects. 
 
On Friday, January 18, Rienzi hosts Tea+Tour: Rienzi’s Romneys, featuring a tour of the collection and a high tea service.

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About Casey Monahan

Casey Monahan

Casey Monahan joined Rienzi as education assistant in 2010. She received her B.A. in art history and history from the College of the Holy Cross, and her M.A. in art history from the University of Houston. At Rienzi, the Massachusetts native works with docents, tours, and other public programs. 

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