The role played by tea in the formation of an independent United States is a familiar one, but one aspect of this history that I had never considered before was the possibility that some of the actual tea offloaded in protest into Boston Harbor might be preserved in the archival collections of historians and collectors. Knowing that tea casks, related documents, and other Boston Tea Party artifacts were still in existence, I shouldn’t have been surprised that there is actual tea, but it’s interesting to think about what that tea would be like after contact with salt water, political foment, rough handling, and after so much time. If I did not know about teas aged intentionally, I might assume that the leaves would have organically degraded into dust, like a tomato or a leaf of lettuce. But after a friend brought an article on this very topic to my attention I did a little exploring, and found that there are quite a few samples of this tea, tucked into vials, bottles, little glass caskets, and in display cases in various locations throughout the country.
Sometimes the most unassuming objects can take on powerful meaning. A small, sealed glass bottle of tea, displayed at the American Antiquarian Society, is a case in point. Donated in 1840 by the Reverend Thaddeus M. Harris (1768-1842), a Unitarian clergyman in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and a member of AAS, the tea is one of the most compelling objects for visitors touring the library. Less than five inches high, the mold-blown, pale aqua bottle filled with tea leaves is wrapped at its mouth with twill tape and sealed with red sealing wax. Its attached paper label reads: “Tea Thrown into Boston Harbor Dec. 16, 1773.”
Read the rest of the article, “An Old Vial of Tea with a Priceless Story: The Destruction of the Tea, December 16, 1773.”
A little additional historical background, from the article, “Tea leaves in glass bottle collected on the shore of Dorchester Neck the morning of 17 December 1773“:
Tea Act of 1773
The seeds of the Boston Tea Party were sown in the spring of 1773, when Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773 in an attempt to prevent the East India Company from going bankrupt. This act authorized the company to sell a half million pounds of tea directly to the colonies, without paying the usual duties and tariffs. This meant that the East India Company could undersell anyone, including smugglers, whose tea colonists had been drinking almost exclusively since the passage of the Townshend Acts that placed taxes on everyday items like glass, paper, and tea in 1767 (all the Townshend Acts except that on tea had been repealed in 1770). Parliament reasoned that if the colonists could buy East India Company tea more cheaply than any other, they would begin drinking it again, thus saving the company. Instead, the act revived the colonists’ old argument about taxation without representation and led to the events of 16 December.
What if it were possible to actually brew and drink some of this historically weighty tea? Would you do it? Would it be a disrespectful act of self-indulgence, like wanting to roast and consume a woolly mammoth that has been frozen for centuries?
Note: the accompanying photo is not the actual artifact from the Boston Tea Party (but you can view a photograph of one here). I did not have usage rights for the photo used in the article quoted, so I used a different photo.