|Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, c. 1800|
Thomas Jefferson was an early “foodie” and his great passion for food and drink included Chinese tea, both black and green.
According to the archives of Monticello, Jefferson’s financial records and correspondence show consistent purchases of tea and provide valuable information about the kinds and amounts of tea he and his family drank.
The few references from the 1770s and 1780s show a variety of different kinds of tea procured from Dr. William Pasteur’s apothecary in Williamsburg. Dr. Pasteur served as a surgeon to colonial troops and was mayor of Williamsburg at one time.
Jefferson ordered Chu-chong (souchong black tea) at a very high price from a Richmond merchant in 1780.
Tea Canister, China 1760
Peabody Museum, Salem MA
This silver filigree tea canister fits snugly into a painted ivory and mica box, protected by a hardwood carrying case. The silver label reads SOUCHON, meaning Souchong, a large leaf black tea popular in England and the colonies. A matching canister contained green tea and is labeled HYSON, one of the most popular Chinese green teas of the 18th and 19th centuries. Both of these teas were tossed overboard during the December 16, 1773 Boston rebellion.
Jefferson’s time in Paris (1784-89) further piqued his interest in tea as the Parisians were much taken by the exotic Asian beverage. After all, the ladies of Paris were drinking tea 20 years before their London cousins.
During his 1790-91 stay in Philadelphia, Jefferson seems to have preferred Imperial tea. Hyson, one of the teas tossed overboard in Boston, is also mentioned as a favorite.
Here are a few known entries from Thomas Jefferson’s journals concerning tea (courtesy of Monticello):
1777 December 13. (Williamsburg) “Pd. at Dr. Pasteur’s for 2 lb bohea tea £4-10.”
1777 December 25. (Williamsburg) “Pd. Miss Hunter for 2 lb Congo tea £6.”
1780 June 9. (Richmond) “Pd. for 1 lb Chu-chong tea £70 / Pd. for 1 lb Hyson do. £100.”
1784 November 24. (Paris) “Pd. Mrs. Barclay for China, tea & brandy 1054f.
1788 April 29. (Paris) “Tea 4. lb @ 10lt. pr. lb – 40lt 4s”
1791 January 18. (Philadelphia) “Campbell 1. lb Imperial tea 2.D.”
1791 March 8. (Philadelphia) “Tea out. The pound has lasted exactly 7. weeks, used 6 times a week. This is 8/21 or .4 of an oz. a time, for a single person. A pound of tea making 126. cups costs 2.D.”
1791 April 16. (Philadelphia) “Tea out. Pd. for 1. lb Imperial 2 D.”
1794 October 9. (Jefferson to John Barnes, a Philadelphia tea merchant and grocer) “Having occasion for about 20. lb. of good tea annually, I think it best to rely for the choice of price, and on no one do I rely more willingly than on yourself. I usually send to Philadelphia for my groceries once a quarter, and will on those occasions ask of you a quarter’s supply of tea. At present I will beg the favor of you to pack for me in a cannister 5. lb. of good tea. Young hyson we prefer both for flavor and strength, but if you have none good, let it be hyson of the antient kind.”
Bruce Richardson, owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas & Benjamin Press serves as Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum.