Time for Tea! How Tea Changed World History

5 minute read

Afternoon Tea for Three by Charles-Joseph-Frédéric Soulacroix. Afternoon Tea for Three by Charles-Joseph-Frédéric Soulacroix.

Tea bears a rich and complex global history, originating in ancient China nearly 5,000 years ago in the Yunan region during the Sheng Dynasty as a warm medicinal beverage. Lore has it that Emperor Shen Nung discovered tea when leaves blew into a pot of boiling water in 2732 B.C.E., enticing the ruler’s senses with a pleasant scent — changing the world forever. Uniquely, traditions involving tea as a beverage for healing as well as pleasure are found in almost every culture worldwide, from China to England, Russia to India. Ahead, a brief world history of tea and some of M.S. Rau’s finest tea sets and accessories. Pinkies out!

An Asian Innovation

In China, tea’s popularity grew rapidly from the 4th through the 8th century, evolving from a medicinal agent to an everyday refreshment. As tea plantations spread throughout China, tea leaves became an expensive commodity and tea merchants came into the wealthy elite. The Chinese Empire tightly controlled the cultivation of the crop, and a new culture sprang up around tea. Now, elegant Chinese tea wares became the banner of wealth and status.

Tibetans were introduced to tea through China during the early 9th century. Tibet’s rocky, mountainous terrain made cultivating tea impossible, so it was imported from China via yak caravan in long expeditions that took an entire year to complete. Not only was this journey treacherous due to the dramatic landscape of the Himalayans, tea thieves and pirates also threatened the Chinese-Tibetan tea trade. Two to three hundred tea yaks traversed the country daily to meet astronomical demands. Tea became so popular in Tibet, compressed tea was used as a form of currency that could pay for almost anything in Tibetan society, including as payment for workers and servants.

Chinese Export Silver Tea and Coffee Service. Chinese Export Silver Tea and Coffee Service.

Likewise, Japan was introduced to tea in the 9th century by a Buddhist monk studying abroad in China. Tea became a central part of the Japanese monastery, with monks employing the newly cultivated beverage to stay awake and alert during prolonged meditations. By the early 14th century, tea was popular throughout all levels of Japanese society, but its early monastic use permanently lent a spirituality to tea in the culture that directly influenced the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

The advent of black tea can be traced back to the explosion of foreign trade with Europeans. Until the mid-17th century, China only cultivated green tea. Tea farmers invented a method of preservation using fermentation resulting in black tea, which kept its flavor and aroma longer making it ideal for export.

Global Trade and the East India Company

Portuguese and Dutch traders began importing tea into Europe from China in 1610, but England’s famous obsession with the steeped beverage did not begin until half a century later. In 1662, King Charles II wed tea-loving Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, who introduced tea to the nation as part of her dowry — a chest of fine Chinese tea. The exotic treat’s popularity spread like wildfire through England and Europe once Britain’s new queen began serving tea in royal court to her aristocratic friends.

Meissen Tea and Coffee Service. Meissen Tea and Coffee Service.

The Dutch dominated the Asian tea trade until 1678 when Britain’s love of tea exploded, compelling England to directly import tea commercially, rather than dealing with the Dutch. Seeking full control of trade and profits, the British Royal Family chartered the East India Company, granting it a monopoly on all Asian and East African trade. The East India Company quickly became the most powerful monopoly the world has ever known — and tea was its primary commodity. The company was given the right to acquire territory, coin money, keep armies and forts, punish lawbreakers, form foreign alliances and even declare war.

The East India Company remained the most powerful in the Atlantic tea trade until 1833 when the British Parliament declared its trade routes open to competition. Yet, the lasting effects of the East India Company indeed changed the world. Tea prompted an entire global economy, and Hong Kong, Singapore and India were claimed as British colonies that still retain strong cultural and political ties to the United Kingdom to this day.

The Russian Connection

Like their Western European neighbors, Russians are well-known for their love of tea, which has played a significant role in Russian culture for some 400 years. And it’s no wonder: In Russia’s frigid climate, warming beverages like tea (and vodka) come in handy. Russians are experts in selecting and producing fine teas, which are not simply comforting quaffs but also a vital social activity backed by long-reaching cultural traditions.

Tea quickly gained popularity in the Russian Empire in the 17th century after Imperial China presented Tzar Alexis with the gift of tea in 1618. Similar to the ancient Tibetan tea trade, China began exporting their cash crop throughout Russia via a camel caravan trade route. Spanning more than 11,000 miles, the treacherous tea route took almost two years to traverse by camelback. Russia’s thirst for tea was so insatiable, for centuries this trade route was routinely packed with 6,000 camels transporting 600 pounds of tea each. In the early 20th century, the camel caravan was replaced by the famous Trans-Siberian Railway, slashing the exorbitant transportation time from a year and a half to one week.

Wedgwood Acanthus Leaf Jasper-Dip Teapot. Wedgwood Acanthus Leaf Jasper-Dip Teapot.

European Legacy

For centuries, tea was an exotic imported luxury that only wealthy Europeans could afford to enjoy. Expensive tea prices made the beverage highly fashionable and created an air of elitism; serving and drinking tea with elegance took skill and etiquette training that marked lofty social status, intellect and superior breeding. In fact, from the 17th through the 19th century, many aristocratic and well-to-do European families commissioned paintings portraying the family at tea.

“Afternoon tea” became a popular British institution in the 18th century thanks to Anna Russell, 7th Duchess of Bedford. Loathing the long gap between a light breakfast and late evening meal, the Duchess instructed her maid to bring a pot of tea along with light refreshments to her room to ease her hunger pangs. She soon began to invite friends to join her for afternoon tea, thus sparking a lasting trend of teatime.

Though equally recognizable, British “high tea” is quite different. Though it may sound more elite, high tea is actually a 19th-century working class custom served later — around 6:00 p.m. — consisting of a full dinner meal. Fish, meat, eggs, cheese, bread, butter and cake are all served as staples of high tea. Surprisingly, high tea is considered a masculine affair while afternoon tea is more of a lady’s social diversion.

Martha Washington Cup & Saucer. Martha Washington Cup & Saucer.

American Tea Traditions

As North America was colonized in the 17th and 18th centuries, European and English teatime traditions and rules of etiquette crossed the Atlantic. Colonists founded teahouses in their new North American communities, and elegant silver and porcelain tea wares and accessories became exceedingly popular in the new cities of New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

By 1750, tea was the single largest and most valuable British commodity exported to the colonies. In an effort to capitalize on its American popularity, the British government levied a “tea tax” on colonists, gradually increasing the tax rate to 119%—more than doubling the initial wholesale cost of tea. As an act of defiance in the face of British greed, American ports refused to allow any dutiable goods ashore — namely, tea. This historic moment resulted in the famous Boston Tea Party and the British government's closure of Boston Harbor, along with the arrival of British troops on American soil. Boycotting tea became an act of American patriotism from this moment on. This series of tea-centric events harkened the beginning of the American Revolution and America's known preference for coffee!

Despite the United States’ ardor for the coffee bean, American culture still changed the tea industry in a big way. In 1904, a group of tea producers organized a tea pavilion at the St. Louis World’s Fair, offering cups of hot tea to all attendees. Unusually hot summer temperatures prompted the booth supervisors to pour piping-hot tea over ice, creating a quintessentially American way to imbibe tea — iced tea. Customers lined up to quench their summertime thirst with the frosty new innovation. Today, the U.S. guzzles almost 50 billion glasses of iced tea in a single year, accounting for more than 80% of all tea consumed in America.


Browse M.S. Rau's impressive selection of tea sets and accessories from around the world.


“The Birthplace of Tea,” Coffee Tea Warehouse. Accessed January 7, 2020. http://www.coffeeteawarehouse.com/tea-history.html
“A History of Tea,” Peet’s Coffee. Accessed January 7, 2020. https://www.peets.com/learn/history-of-tea
“Russian Teatime Traditions,” Trip Savvy. Accessed January 7, 2020. https://www.tripsavvy.com/russian-teatime-traditions-1622500

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