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A poor woman's luxury that stifled the economy: Tea drinking in the 1800s

Drinking tea in the 19th century was anathema to reformers who argued in newly-discovered pamphlets that drinking tea amongst women was akin to being a member of a secret society.

The humble cup of tea
The humble cup of tea
Image: Paul Seheult/Eye Ubiquitous/Press Association Images

TEA DRINKING AMONGST peasant women in the 19th century was considered a luxury which stifled economic growth and a problem that was reckless and uncontrollable, new research has found.

A study by Durham University had found that poor women who drank tea in 19th century Ireland were considered to be as irresponsible as those who drank whiskey.

Pamphlets that were published in England contained claims by so-called reformers that tea drinking amongst peasant women was seen as a practice that needed to be stamped out in order to improve the Irish economy and society.

Furthermore, tea drinking was considered akin to being a member of a secret society according to the University which says that such a belief heightened political anxieties during a period of counter revolution within the union of Britain and Ireland.

In a paper published this week in the Literature and History academic journal, A Raking Pot of Tea: Consumption and Excess in Early Nineteenth-Century Ireland, author Dr Helen O’Connell, a lecturer in English Studies, analyses pamphlets and literature from the 1800s.

“Peasant women were condemned for putting their feet up with a cup of tea when they should be getting a hearty evening meal ready for their hard-working husbands,” she says.

The pamphlets were distributed among peasant households and criticised tea drinking as a luxury that would go so far as to cause addiction, illicit longing and revolutionary sympathies.

“The prospect of poor peasant women squandering already scarce resources on fashionable commodities such as tea was a worry but it also implied that drinking tea could even express a form of revolutionary feminism for these women,” O’Connell says.

One pamphlet, cited by Durham University, was produced in 1811 by the Irish reformer and writer Mary Leadbeater who told the story of two friends, Rose and Nancy.

According to the university, the pamphlet details Rose warning her friend Nancy that “must not every poor man’s wife work in and out of doors, and do all she can to help her husband?

“And do you think you can afford tea, on thirteen pence a day? Put that out of your head entirely, Nancy; give up the tea for good and all.”

Ah go on: Half of tea drinkers think you know them if you make the perfect cup

Read: ‘Come Here, Will You Have a Cup of Tea’ Taoiseach of the Day

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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