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In eighteenth-century England, there were many reasons why families might have been torn apart, or why dutiful wives and hardworking husbands could suffer a fall from grace. Heart-rending tales of orphaned children, abandoned lovers and destitution fill the pages of contemporary newspaper columns and court records. For some, one of the prime suspects behind the nation’s idleness and debauchery was quietly, steadily taking root in almost every street in the country.

This terrible foreign invader encouraged young men to stay “a lurking in the bed” rather than earning an honest wage. It turned women to harlotry and insolence, caused atrocious child neglect, and was armed to carry everyone off to their grave a decade early. This enemy of virtue? Why, tea, of course.

The philanthropist Jonas Hanway lamented that “Men seem to have lost their stature, and comliness; and women their beauty. Your very chambermaids have lost their bloom, I suppose by sipping tea.” But social reformer William Cobbett’s fevered rant about the moral and national implications of tea-drinking was even more vehement (emphasis my own):

“Tea drinking fills the public house, makes the frequenting of it habitual, corrupts boys as soon as they are able to move from home, and does little less for the girls, to whom the gossip of the tea table is no bad preparatory school for the brothel… the girl that has been brought up merely to boil the tea kettle, and assist in the gossip inseparable from the practice, is a mere consumer of food, a pest to her employer, and a curse to her husband, if any man be so unfortunate as to fix his affections upon her.

In short, Cobbett viewed the plant ”as a destroyer of health, an enfeebler of the frame, an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth and a maker of misery for old age.”

And the solution to this terrible moral poison? Every household brewing its own “good and wholesome Beer.” Obviously.

tea

Image (top): Detail from plate 2 of Hogarth’s ‘The Harlot’s Progress’ (1732)
Image (bottom): Detail from ‘The Girl in Stile’ by H. Kingsbury (1787)

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39 thoughts on “Can drinking tea turn you into a whore?

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  3. Brilliant research, superbly presented with sparkling writing. Super. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to enfeeble my frame with a nice cup of tea…

  4. The very word “tea” can cause “harlotry and insolence” to this very day, one only has to look to the Republican Tea Party.

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  12. Reblogged this on Salut, et encore merci pour le poisson! and commented:
    Le thé, cette boisson subversive de la “bonne société” anglaise du 18e siècle…
    C’est sans compter l’industrie coloniale la mettant en place peu à peu et transformant cette denrée étrangère en signe culturel distinctif.
    Nous parlons souvent de l’exportation culturelle, idéologique des empires coloniaux sur les colonies, mais c’est oublier que l’importation est au cœur du matérialisme impérialiste. La vision sociale et le discours produits sur les produits importés offre un éclairage intéressant à étudier.

    Tea, this subversive beverage of the english “good society” in 18th century…
    That’s not counting the colonial industry putting in place gradually and transforming this foreign commodity in modern distinctive cultural sign.
    We often speak of the cultural and ideological export of colonial empires over the colonies, but we musn’t forget that the import is at the heart of the imperialist materialism. Therefore, social vision and speech products on imports offers interesting lighting to study.

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