1785: The English Tea Trade at Work

A recent acquisition, this catalog describes the East India Company’s tea sales in March of 1785 – a year of great changes for the British tea trade. This sale was among the first to follow the Commutation Act of 1784. For years, and specifically over the last decade to help finance the war against America, taxes on tea had been continuously raised until they reached an exorbitant 119%. As a result, the high tax fostered widespread tea smuggling as well as unreliable quality. Introduced by William Pitt the Younger, the Commutation Act reduced the tax on tea to 12.5% thereby effectively ending the tea smuggling and establishing a monopoly on tea importing for the struggling East India Company.

Catalogs were produced before the quarterly sales for buyers to review the available tea and its condition. This catalog from the second March sale of 1785 features Hyson and Souchong tea. A key in the front of the catalog decodes the symbols next to the tea lots from various ships that had returned from China. Quality ranges from “musty and mouldy” to “superfine”. Additional symbols noted the leaf size, smells and other conditions such as “woody” or “smoakey”. Space was available on the right side of the lot listings to be filled in with manuscript annotations detailing the ultimate price and buyer. (Princeton’s copy is completely filled in, presumably by “J. Williams” whose signature is on the back cover and whose initials are on the front cover.)

For more information, see: The Management of Monopoly by Hoh-cheung Mui and Lorna H. Mui (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1984). “William Pitt and the Enforcement of the Commutation Act, 1784-1788” by Hoh-cheung Mui and Lorna H. Mui (The English Historical Review, Vol. 76, No. 300 (Jul., 1961), pp. 447-465).

East India Company’s Reserve of Hyson and Souchong Tea. Second March Sale 1785. (London: 1785). Call number: (Ex) Item 6538574. Purchased as part of a collection of 45 early English cookery books assembled by
James Stevens Cox.
See [full text] for a listing of this cookery collection acquired during 2012.

— Jen Meyer, Assistant to the Curator of Rare Books, Princeton University Library.