Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Spot of Tea

By Frank N. Barker
Assistant Education Coordinator

Who would have thought that some dried leaves, soaked in water, could be such a controversial item that it would be listed in history books as one of several reasons for armed rebellion?

Tea, in the 18th century, was more than just a simple beverage. It was a meal, a social event, a medicine, and by the latter part of the century, a political hot button item as it became the symbol of taxation without representation.

By January 1774, a month after Patriots in Indian attire turned Boston harbor into a sea of tea, the buying, selling, and consumption of tea had become politically and socially incorrect. What were the tea-loving, freedom-loving colonials going to drink?

The January edition of the Gazette
In the January 13 issue of the Virginia Gazette, a contributor writing under the pseudonym Philo-Aletheias, listed 17 substitutes for that popular beverage.1 He also included medical advice and beauty tips with many of the substitute recipes and he gave recommendations on just how to brew them, starting with “Every Sort of Tea is rendered disagreeable by being too strong.”

But if we must, through Custom, have some warm Tea, once or twice a Day, why may we not exchange this slow Poison, which not only destroys our Constitutions, but dangers our Liberty, and drains our Country of so many thousand Pounds a year, for Teas of our own American Plants; many of which may be found, pleasant to the Taste and very salutary, according to our various Constitutions.

As the first of his concoctions of brewed American plants, Philo-Aletheias lists "Sassafras Root, sliced thin and dried, with Raspings of Lignumvite" which makes a tea that is "exceedingly agreeable, when made weak. Not only was this brew agreeable, he says, but it "beautifies and smoothes the Complexion, prevents Pleurises, Scurvies, and Cachexies [weakness and wasting of the body due to severe chronic illness.] &c."

Prepare a tea of sweet marjoram mixed with a bit of mint and you have a concoction that will "relieve the Head and Nerves, strengthen the Stomach, help all the Digestions, are good in Catarrhs and Asthmas, and also giving a good Colour to the Skin, prevent Hystericks, and Melancholy." Truly a wonder drug--and it's available without a prescription.

"Mother of Thyme, and a little Hyssop," will not only revive your spirits, and "make [you] cheerful" and it’s also "good against cold Diseases, Asthmas, Coughs, and Vapours."

A tea of sage and balm leaves is "gently astringent, stimulating and strengthening, excellent in Fevers, when joined with a little Lemon Juice; good for weak Stomachs, Gouts, Vertigoes, and Cachexies.

Rosemary and lavender is apparently “excellent for Disorders of the Head, and Weakness of the nervous System, occasioned by India Teas, or otherwise; they resolve cold Humours, strengthen the Stomach, and rouse the Spirits."

Why rely on overtaxed imported tea from India when you have “A very few small twigs of white oak, well dried in the Sun with two Leaves and a half of sweet Myrtle”? This leafy, twiggy formula “… so exactly counterfeits the India Teas that a good Connoisseur might be mistaken in them.” If you don’t mind drinking sticks.

Out of sawdust and myrtle? Got “Obstructions of the Spleen, Liver, &c”? Why not try clover with a little chamomile.

Asthma? No problem. “Twigs of black Currant Bushes greatly relieve Asthmas, and often cure them in Children, with a few Worm Purges.”

Red Rose Bush Leaves and Cinquefoil, on the other hand, “recruit the Strength, mitigate Pain and Inflammations, and are beneficial to consumptive and feverish People, healing to Wounds, and serviceable in spitting of Blood.” This reader is confused about whether “spitting of Blood” is desired or undesired.

Then there is mistletoe and English wild valerian. “This tea is not the most pleasant, but tolerable, [you don’t hear Madison Avenue turning a phrase like that] and is one of the principal Antispasmodicks… has cured many of the Falling Sickness [epilepsy], purging by Sweat and Urine, and destroying Worms better than the narcotick Pink Root.” Before boiling up some mistletoe though, you may want to consider this. While it is used in several medical applications, “It is a poisonous plant that causes acute gastrointestinal problems including stomach pain and diarrhea along with low pulse.”2 Don’t try this one at home.

“Pine Buds, and lesser Vervain, make a Tea sufficient to cure most Agues, and are very powerful Dirueticks, removing Indurations of the Spleen, Liver, Reins, and Mysentery.” Powerful, indeed.

Do you have wormy children? Try “Ground Ivy, with a little Lavender Cotton, or Roman Wormwood, or Southernwood.” It will “open Obstructions, prevent malignant and infectious Diseases, cure Agues and Coughs, and kill Worms in Children.”

Do you need a remedy against agues and “hysterick Cholicks”? Then you’ll want a tea made from “Fennel Seed, and inner Bark of Magnolia.”

“Strawberry Leaves, and Leaves of Sweet Brier, or Dog’s Rose, make a Tea agreeably dulco-acid, cooling in Fevers, bilious fluxes, Sharpness of Urine, and Indispositions of the Stomach.” Keep it in mind the next time your flux is bilious.

Another fine brew is golden rod and betony. “A Tea of these, drank with Honey, are highly corroborative and detersive, to cleanse Ulcers in the Lungs, and Wounds of the Breast, Palsies, &c.”

“Twigs of the liquid Amber Tree (commonly called Sweet Gum).” Sweeten that with honey and the resulting tea is “very pectoral, and a Specifick with some in Pleurisies.” Elder flowers are optional.

Do you suffer from “flatulent Cholicks, Hystericks, and Depression of Spirits”? “Wastings, Hemmorrhages, and Fluxes” getting you down? Philo-Aletheias’s final tea-like substance of peppermint and yarrow will fix you right up!

The writer assures that all of his teas are safe and innocent, that even pregnant ladies can drink them (except the thyme and hyssop, the mistletoe and valerian, and the ground ivy and lavender cotton).

“Married Persons may add a little Ginger to any of them.” Why just married persons? More research may be needed.

If the Gentlemen and Ladies of the first Rank will use their Influence and Example to abolish this pernicious Custom of drinking the Asiatick Teas, and introduce and persevere in using our own, they will have the Self-pleasing Satisfaction of having emancipated their Country from the basest Slavery and Tyranny of Custom, and erecting a Monument to Common Sense, which will merit the Praise of unborn Generations. 


It’s interesting to note that by the end of the following year, instead of instructing its subscribers with recipes for herbal teas, the Virginia Gazette would be publishing the recipe for gunpowder as this anti-tea tax movement had evolved into full-blown revolution.


1Virginia Gazette, Purdie and Dixon, January 13, 1774, Page 1. Virginia Gazette. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2014. <>.

2The Handy Science Answer Book. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink, 1997.

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