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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate in Early Colonial America

“Thank God for tea!” wrote the British clergyman and essayist Reverend Sydney Smith (1771–1845), one of many to pay impassioned tribute to the world’s most popular infusion. Yet, prior to its importation to Europe by Dutch traders around 1610, tea was virtually unknown to Westerners, who routinely began their day with a mug of beer or ale. Three exotic beverages—coffee, tea, and chocolate—arrived in seventeenth-century Europe at a time of burgeoning exploration and trade, and their arrival caused a near revolution in drinking habits. Celebrated by some, deplored by others, these stimulating brews gave rise to a number of important social institutions, such as the coffeehouse, the tea garden, and the ritual of afternoon tea. At first valued for their curative powers, they were soon counted among the necessities of daily life, and the utensils used in their preparation and service became essential as well.

Colonial Americans quickly adopted the taste for these imported beverages and their fashionable equipage. Colonial coffeehouses, following the London model, became powerful social catalysts, providing an excellent forum for the exchange of ideas and the distribution of news. All three beverages were also consumed in the home, where fine silver and ceramic vessels were especially valued. American silversmiths emulated English and Continental styles. Coffeepots (1997.498.1) were tall and tapered, with a curved pouring spout and a wooden handle to protect the pourer’s hand from the heat-conducting metal. Inverted pear-shaped pots became popular during the Rococo period, and urn-shaped pots on pedestal feet (1980.503.1) characterize late eighteenth-century design. Chocolate, always expensive, was taken at breakfast by fashionable society. Chocolate pots (33.120.221) differ from coffeepots in that their covers are made with a hinged or removable finial to accommodate a molinet (stirring rod). Thick with cocoa butter, the beverage needed to be milled prior to pouring.

The practice of tea drinking arrived with colonists from both England and the Netherlands and was already established by the mid-seventeenth century, evidenced by the number of tea wares recorded in household inventories. The earliest of these were undoubtedly imported from abroad, but American silversmiths began producing teapots by the start of the eighteenth century. At first globular (61.246a,b) or pear-shaped, apple-shaped teapots became the norm by the mid-eighteenth century (24.109.7). By the later decades, drum- and oval-shaped pots with straight spouts (69.147; 33.120.543; 1980.503.2) reflected the preference for Neoclassical design.

In addition to the pots from which these beverages were poured, vessels in the equipage included covered sugar bowls (39.23a,b; 33.120.546a,b; 1980.503.3a, b), creampots (33.120.295; 33.120.547; 1980.503.4), teakettles (40.145a,b), and hot-water urns (1990.226a-d). Canisters for the dried tea leaves, sometimes made in pairs (64.249.5a,b), and salvers (1997.498.2) or trays for serving were also occasional accompaniments. Matching services (1980.503.1; 1980.503.2; 1980.503.3a, b; 1980.503.4) did not appear until the 1790s.

In the 1760s, the British government began to impose a tax on tea, first through the Stamp Act of 1765 and later with the Townshend Acts of 1767. Dissatisfied colonists took to smuggling tea or drinking herbal infusions. Outraged merchants, shippers, and colonists staged a number of demonstrations, culminating in the famous Boston Tea Party of December 1773. Paul Revere’s ride and the first shots fired at Lexington were but a year and a half away.

Political hostilities were in due course resolved, and Americans gathered once again around the tea table. Moreau de Saint-Méry, a foreign visitor to Philadelphia in the 1790s, noted the warmth and hospitality of these events. “The whole family is united at tea, to which friends, acquaintances, and even strangers are invited.”