Clay Swindell: Exhibit to spotlight tea’s role in the Albemarle

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In the summer of 2014 we will be opening our newest exhibit highlighting the history and importance of tea in the region. Why do an exhibit on tea? You might be surprised to learn that this everyday item played an important role in forming our modern society.

Tea’s origin is based in Chinese legend going back as far as the 3rd Century B.C. It quickly spread from China to Japan and India where deep traditions around its use and preparation continued to develop.

Easy to grow and prepare, all levels of society, from emperors to peasants had access to it. This cultural ubiquity across Asia made it a good candidate for trade. European traders brought back not only the tea leaves themselves, but the material culture associated with it. These include items like tea bowls and teapots.

Tea quickly gained in popularity and was by the early 18th Century high in demand. Throughout Europe it was thought to cure everything from gout to old age but was most prized for its ability to “give fresh vigor” — no doubt a result of the caffeine.

The English aristocracy and gentry had adopted tea use early in the 17th century as a means of gaining favors amongst the court. Drinking the beverage began to include elaborate rituals, modes of dress, and specific tools like teapots, spoons and cups; around these traditions new ideas of manners and mannerisms rose to ritualistic levels even amongst family and friends.

By the late 18th century, tea’s popularity in the American colonies surpassed that of Britain’s and was tied to much more than its medicinal benefits. Tea was fashionable, even more popular than other caffeinated drinks like chocolate and coffee.

It represented Englishness, though after the Tea Act of 1773, refusal of its use was used politically by American colonials. Here in the Albemarle, one such political movement termed the Edenton Tea Party, highlighted women from Edenton who refused to purchase tea from English traders until the Tea Act was repealed.

By the late Victorian period, businesses focused their efforts on tea consumers who became a priority with the rise in the middle class. Teahouses and rooms were opened across the region where men and women would go to socialize.

This idealistic impression of tea and society persists to this day and some teahouses remain. Here, visitors can learn about manners and the customs devoted to this beverage. Still, tea consumption is enjoyed by all levels of society and income. Restaurants across the region serve it hot and cold, sweet and unsweet.

Our exhibit, “Tea Time,” will provide the visitor with an overview of tea’s importance from its earliest use to the present. It will feature items that relate directly to tea’s rise in 18th century English society, its transition to the American colonies and its social and political importance among residents of the Albemarle region during subsequent centuries. If you have items that you feel relate directly to the early history of tea in the Albemarle please contact the museum, attention Clay Swindell, by calling 252-335-1453.

Clay Swindell is a collections specialist with Museum of the Albemarle