Why Drinking Tea Was Once Considered A Dangerous Habit | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

NPR : News

Why Drinking Tea Was Once Considered A Dangerous Habit

Given tea's rap today as both a popular pick-me-up and a health elixir, it's hard to imagine that sipping tea was once thought of as a reckless, suspicious act, linked to revolutionary feminism.

Huh? Well, the feminist complaints came from 19th century, upper class Irish critics who argued that peasant women shouldn't be wasting their time — and limited resources — on tea. If women had time to sit down and enjoy a tea break, this must mean they were ignoring their domestic duties and instead, perhaps, opening the door to political engagement or even rebellion.

"Drinking tea was thought to threaten traditional ways," explains researcher Helen O'Connell of Durham University in the UK. In the 1800s, tea was an affront to the virtues of frugality and restraint, which underpinned rural Irish culture.

In a new paper published in the journal Literature and History, O'Connell explores the angst about tea by combing through popular pamphlets — or short works of fiction — published in the 1800s. The pamphlets were published by reformers who were trying to weave tales of morality and clean-living into story form.

In one pamphlet, "Cottage Dialouges," written by the Irish Quaker author and reformer Mary Leadbeater, a dialogue between two women makes it clear that tea-drinking was considered a lavish, irresponsible behavior that could be habit-forming. Though the characters don't know the language of addiction, they use the phrase "hankering after it" — as if to suggest that once you'd had your first cup of tea, it would impossible to stop or control your longings. Adding to this suggestion is the fact that tea was sold at liquor stores.

The reformers' campaign against tea took on another moral outrage too: slavery. Since tea was typically sweetened with sugar at the time, reformers in Ireland tried to convince people that tea-drinking was akin to drinking the blood of slaves who were forced to work the plantations where sugar was produced.

O'Connell says clearly, in the end, the campaign against tea was not successful. Consumption of tea continued to grow steadily during this period.

To us, the campaign against tea, particularly the suggestions it may lead to revolutionary feminism, may seem crazy.

But in some ways, O'Connell says, "contemporary culture has all of these ideas about food which might appear ludicrous in time to come."

Any examples come to mind? "Maybe organic food, I don't know," O'Connell says. Or maybe the way we obsess over gluten. "Working on this project has made me a bit more critical of food discourse," she says. "Our passions and beliefs sometimes take over."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

In A Remarkable Feat, 'Boyhood' Makes Time Visible

Boyhood is about a boy in Texas whose parents have separated. Filmed over 12 years, audiences watch him grow up — and his worldview evolve. The cumulative power of the movie is tremendous.
NPR

Spread Of Palm Oil Production Into Africa Threatens Great Apes

Palm oil growers are setting their sights on Africa as they amp up production. More than half of the land that's been set aside for plantations in Africa overlaps with ape habitats, researchers say.
WAMU 88.5

Democrats Push To Overturn Hobby Lobby Ruling

Virginia's Tim Kaine and other Democrats are trying to overturn the ruling with legislation they say will protect female workers.
NPR

Friday Feline Fun: A Ranking Of The Most Famous Internet Cats

Forget the Forbes Celebrity 100. This is the Friskies 50 — the new definitive guide of the most influential cats on the Internet. The list is based on a measure of the cats' social media reach.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.