Tea on the Michilimackinac Frontier

By the late 18th century, tea was firmly established as an integral part of British culture, and tea formed an important component of British social life in even the most remote corners of the empire, including places like Michilimackinac. IMG_4645

Tea was introduced to the British around 1660 by Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese wife of King Charles II. Only a decade later, the British East India Company began importing tea on a commercial scale. Over the course of the 18th century, the cost of tea fell. By the 1730s, tea sets began appearing in lower class homes, and by mid-century servants demanded tea from their employers. By 1784, a French visitor observed that “the drinking of tea is general throughout England…even the humblest peasant will take his tea twice a day.”

Around the same time that tea grew in popularity, the practice of calling upon friends also became much more common in England. Tea became a staple of visits due to its simplicity, and serving tea in the correct fashion became an important marker of social distinction or pretensions thereof. Unlike a formal dinner, the actual preparation and serving of tea could be performed by the lady of the house, with little or no assistance from servants. The hostess thus directly served her guests, brewing the tea before pouring individual bowls for every visitor. Visiting and tea became almost inseparable.

IMG_4640Several of Michilimackinac’s historic residents wrote about tea and visiting at the post in the 18th century. When he visited in 1749, Michel Chartier de Lotbinere wrote condescendingly about the French habitants, noting that the women “put on lady-like airs and to keep up appearances they spend time every day going from house to house for a cup of coffee or chocolate.” Although he did not record the use of tea, Lotbiniere’s observations do indicate that visiting was a popular social pastime for the residents of Michilimackinac.

As with everything else, tea had to be imported via canoe from trading houses in Quebec and Montreal. Occasionally, this long voyage resulted in poorly-handled or long-delayed products. In April 1778, merchant John Askin reported that supplies were running low: “Mrs. Askin has still some Tea and loaf Sugar and at once a Day for herself will be able to hold out, the rest of us have Chocolate for Breakfast and Barley Substituted in the room of Coffee in the afternoon.” Although he received a new shipment of tea in early May, Askin complained that “it is not only the most common sorts of green tea, but so bad besides that I would prefer the Bohea to it ten to one, besides it comeing in Paper in a bale has still done it some damage by bruising it into powder.”

Despite these difficulties, in 1776 Askin’s inventory of his household possession included eight pounds of the “best green tea,” 15 pounds of common green tea, and five pounds of bohea tea. In 1778, his household possessed 30 pounds of green tea, valued at £45. Askin’s household also contained a number of items related to the teaIMG_4652 ceremony, including “a Dozen of China cups & Saucers,” two large red teapots, a white teapot, a tea table, a tea chest, small tea spoons and tongs, two copper tea kettles, a china tea canister, a silver plated teapot and sugar dish, a japanned tea board, and several other teapots.

Today, visitors to Colonial Michilimackinac are invited to experience the ritual of a social call, complete with tea. Every afternoon until late August, a limited number of guests can learn more about tea’s role in Michilimackinac’s British community, and sample black tea. We hope you’ll join us for this exciting new program at Colonial Michilimackinac!

One Response to “Tea on the Michilimackinac Frontier”

  1. Russell E. Barber

    Had the pleasure of having `tea`,(more likely Coke), at the tea house at the fort. A great place to view the landscape.


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