Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Introduction of Tea, Coffee, and Chocolate.

It is said that the frozen Norwegians, on the first sight of roses, dared not touch what they conceived were trees budding with fire: and the natives of Virginia, the first time they seized on a quantity of gunpowder, which belonged to the English colony, sowed it for grain, expecting to reap a plentiful crop of combustion by the next harvest, to blow away the whole colony.

In our own recollection, strange imaginations impeded the first period of vaccination; when some families, terrified by the warning of a physician, conceived their race would end in a species of Minotaurs —

Semibovemque virum, semivirumque bovem.

We smile at the simplicity of the men of nature, for their mistaken notions at the first introduction among them of exotic novelties; and yet, even in civilised Europe, how long a time those whose profession or whose reputation regulates public opinion are influenced by vulgar prejudices, often disguised under the imposing form of science! and when their ludicrous absurdities and obstinate prejudices enter into the matters of history, it is then we discover that they were only imposing on themselves and on others.

It is hardly credible that on the first introduction of the Chinese leaf, which now affords our daily refreshment; or the American leaf, whose sedative fumes made it so long an universal favourite; or the Arabian berry, whose aroma exhilarates its European votaries; that the use of these harmless novelties should have spread consternation among the nations of Europe, and have been anathematised by the terrors and the fictions of some of the learned. Yet this seems to have happened. Patin, who wrote so furiously against the introduction of antimony, spread the same alarm at the use of tea, which he calls “l’impertinente nouveauté du siècle.” In Germany, Hanneman considered tea-dealers as immoral members of society, lying in wait for men’s purses and lives; and Dr. Duncan, in his Treatise on Hot Liquors, suspected that the virtues attributed to tea were merely to encourage the importation.1

Many virulent pamphlets were published against the use of this shrub, from various motives. In 1670, a Dutch writer says it was ridiculed in Holland under the name of hay-water. “The progress of this famous plant,” says an ingenious writer, “has been something like the progress of truth; suspected at first, though very palatable to those who had courage to taste it; resisted as it encroached; abused as its popularity seemed to spread; and establishing its triumph at last, in cheering the whole land from the palace to the cottage, only by the slow and resistless efforts of time and its own virtues.”2

The history of the Tea-shrub, by Dr. Lettsom, usually referred to on this subject, I consider little more than a plagiarism on Dr. Short’s learned and curious dissertation on Tea, 1730, 4to. Lettsom has superadded the solemn trifling of his moral and medical advice.

These now common beverages are all of recent origin in Europe; neither the ancients nor those of the middle ages tasted of this luxury. The first accounts we find of the use of this shrub are the casual notices of travellers, who seem to have tasted it, and sometimes not to have liked it: a Russian ambassador, in 1639, who resided at the court of the Mogul, declined accepting a large present of tea for the Czar, “as it would only encumber him with a commodity for which he had no use.” The appearance of “a black water” and an acrid taste seems not to have recommended it to the German Olearius in 1633. Dr. Short has recorded an anecdote of a stratagem of the Dutch in their second voyage to China, by which they at first obtained their tea without disbursing money; they carried from home great store of dried sage, and bartered it with the Chinese for tea, and received three or four pounds of tea for one of sage: but at length the Dutch could not export sufficient quantities of sage to supply their demand. This fact, however, proves how deeply the imagination is concerned with our palate; for the Chinese, affected by the exotic novelty, considered our sage to be more precious than their tea.

The first introduction of tea into Europe is not ascertained; according to the common accounts it came into England from Holland, in 1666, when Lord Arlington and Lord Ossory brought over a small quantity: the custom of drinking tea became fashionable, and a pound weight sold then for sixty shillings. This account, however, is by no means satisfactory. I have heard of Oliver Cromwell’s tea-pot in the possession of a collector, and this will derange the chronology of those writers who are perpetually copying the researches of others, without confirming or correcting them.3

Amidst the rival contests of the Dutch and the English East India Companies, the honour of introducing its use into Europe may be claimed by both. Dr. Short conjectures that tea might have been known in England as far back as the reign of James the First, for the first fleet set out in 1600; but had the use of the shrub been known, the novelty had been chronicled among our dramatic writers, whose works are the annals of our prevalent tastes and humours. It is rather extraordinary that our East India Company should not have discovered the use of this shrub in their early adventures; yet it certainly was not known in England so late as in 1641, for in a scarce “Treatise of Warm Beer,” where the title indicates the author’s design to recommend hot in preference to cold drinks, he refers to tea only by quoting the Jesuit Maffei’s account, that “they of China do for the most part drink the strained liquor of an herb called Chia hot.” The word Cha is the Portuguese term for tea retained to this day, which they borrowed from the Japanese; while our intercourse with the Chinese made us no doubt adopt their term Theh, now prevalent throughout Europe, with the exception of the Portuguese. The Chinese origin is still preserved in the term Bohea, tea which comes from the country of Vouhi; and that of Hyson was the name of the most considerable Chinese then concerned in the trade.

The best account of the early use, and the prices of tea in England, appears in the handbill of one who may be called our first Tea-maker. This curious handbill bears no date, but as Hanway ascertained that the price was sixty shillings in 1660, his bill must have been dispersed about that period.

Thomas Garway, in Exchange-alley, tobacconist and coffee-man, was the first who sold and retailed tea, recommending it for the cure of all disorders. The following shop-bill is more curious than any historical account we have.

“Tea in England hath been sold in the leaf for six pounds, and sometimes for ten pounds the pound weight, and in respect of its former scarceness and dearness it has been only used as a regalia in high treatments and entertainments, and presents made thereof to princes and grandees till the year 1657. The said Garway did purchase a quantity thereof, and first publicly sold the said tea in leaf or drink, made according to the directions of the most knowing merchants into those Eastern countries. On the knowledge of the said Garway’s continued care and industry in obtaining the best tea, and making drink thereof, very many noblemen, physicians, merchants, &c., have ever since sent to him for the said leaf, and daily resort to his house to drink the drink thereof. He sells tea from 16s. to 50s. a pound.”

Probably, tea was not in general use domestically so late as in 1687; for in the diary of Henry, Earl of Clarendon, he registers that “Père Couplet supped with me, and after supper we had tea, which he said was really as good as any he had drank in China.” Had his lordship been in the general habit of drinking tea, he had not probably made it a subject for his diary.

While the honour of introducing tea may be disputed between the English and the Dutch, that of coffee remains between the English and the French. Yet an Italian intended to have occupied the place of honour: that admirable traveller Pietro della Valle, writing from Constantinople, 1615, to a Roman, his fellow-countryman, informing him that he should teach Europe in what manner the Turks took what he calls ”Cahué,“ or as the word is written in an Arabic and English pamphlet, printed at Oxford, in 1659, on “the nature of the drink Kauhi or Coffee.” As this celebrated traveller lived to 1652, it may excite surprise that the first cup of coffee was not drank at Rome; this remains for the discovery of some member of the “Arcadian Society.” Our own Sandys, at the time that Valle wrote, was also “a traveller,” and well knew what was ”Coffa,“ which “they drank as hot as they can endure it; it is as black as soot, and tastes not much unlike it; good they say for digestion and mirth.”

It appears by Le Grand’s “Vie privée des François,” that the celebrated Thevenot, in 1658, gave coffee after dinner; but it was considered as the whim of a traveller; neither the thing itself, nor its appearance, was inviting: it was probably attributed by the gay to the humour of a vain philosophical traveller. But ten years afterwards a Turkish ambassador at Paris made the beverage highly fashionable. The elegance of the equipage recommended it to the eye, and charmed the women: the brilliant porcelain cups in which it was poured; the napkins fringed with gold, and the Turkish slaves on their knees presenting it to the ladies, seated on the ground on cushions, turned the heads of the Parisian dames. This elegant introduction made the exotic beverage a subject of conversation, and in 1672, an Armenian at Paris at the fair-time opened a coffee-house. But the custom still prevailed to sell beer and wine, and to smoke and mix with indifferent company in their first imperfect coffee-houses. A Florentine, one Procope, celebrated in his day as the arbiter of taste in this department, instructed by the error of the Armenian, invented a superior establishment, and introduced ices; he embellished his apartment, and those who had avoided the offensive coffee-houses repaired to Procope’s; where literary men, artists, and wits resorted, to inhale the fresh and fragrant steam. Le Grand says that this establishment holds a distinguished place in the literary history of the times. It was at the coffee-house of Du Laurent that Saurin, La Motte, Danchet, Boindin, Rousseau, &c., met; but the mild streams of the aromatic berry could not mollify the acerbity of so many rivals, and the witty malignity of Rousseau gave birth to those famous couplets on all the coffee drinkers, which occasioned his misfortune and his banishment.

Such is the history of the first use of coffee and its houses at Paris. We, however, had the use before even the time of Thevenot; for an English Turkish merchant brought a Greek servant in 1652, who, knowing how to roast and make it, opened a house to sell it publicly. I have also discovered his hand-bill, in which he sets forth, “The vertue of the coffee-drink, first publiquely made and sold in England, by Pasqua Rosee, in St. Michael’s Alley, Cornhill, at the sign of his own head.”4

For about twenty years after the introduction of coffee in this kingdom, we find a continued series of invectives against its adoption, both for medicinal and domestic purposes. The use of coffee, indeed, seems to have excited more notice, and to have had a greater influence on the manners of the people, than that of tea. It seems at first to have been more universally used, as it still is on the Continent; and its use is connected with a resort for the idle and the curious: the history of coffee-houses, ere the invention of clubs, was that of the manners, the morals, and the politics of a people. Even in its native country, the government discovered that extraordinary fact, and the use of the Arabian berry was more than once forbidden where it grows; for Ellis, in his “History of Coffee,” 1774, refers to an Arabian MS., in the King of France’s library, which shows that coffee-houses in Asia were sometimes suppressed. The same fate happened on its introduction into England.

Among a number of poetical satires against the use of coffee, I find a curious exhibition, according to the exaggerated notions of that day, in “A Cup of Coffee, or Coffee in its Colours,” 1663. The writer, like others of his contemporaries, wonders at the odd taste which could make Coffee a substitute for Canary.

For men and Christians to turn Turks and think

To excuse the crime, because ’tis in their drink!

Pure English apes! ye may, for aught I know,

Would it but mode — learn to eat spiders too.5

Should any of your grandsires’ ghosts appear

In your wax-candle circles, and but hear

The name of coffee so much called upon,

Then see it drank like scalding Phlegethon;

Would they not startle, think ye, all agreed

’Twas conjuration both in word and deed?

Or Catiline’s conspirators, as they stood

Sealing their oaths in draughts of blackest blood,

The merriest ghost of all your sires would say,

Your wine’s much worse since his last yesterday.

He’d wonder how the club had given a hop

O’er tavern-bars into a farrier’s shop,

Where he’d suppose, both by the smoke and stench,

Each man a horse, and each horse at his drench. —

Sure you’re no poets, nor their friends, for now,

Should Jonson’s strenuous spirit, or the rare

Beaumont and Fletcher’s, in your round appear,

They would not find the air perfumed with one

Castalian drop, nor dew of Helicon;

When they but men would speak as the gods do,

They drank pure nectar as the gods drink too,

Sublim’d with rich Canary — say, shall then

These less than coffee’s self, these coffee-men;

These sons of nothing, that can hardly make

Their broth, for laughing how the jest does take,

Yet grin, and give ye for the vine’s pure blood

A loathsome potion, not yet understood,

Syrop of soot, or essence of old shoes,

Dasht with diurnals and the books of news?

Other complaints arose from the mixture of the company in the first coffee-houses. In “A Broadside against Coffee, or the Marriage of the Turk,” 1672, the writer indicates the growth of the fashion:—

Confusion huddles all into one scene,

Like Noah’s ark, the clean and the unclean;

For now, alas! the drench has credit got,

And he’s no gentleman who drinks it not.

That such a dwarf should rise to such a stature!

But custom is but a remove from nature.

In “The Women’s Petition against Coffee,” 1674, they complained that “it made men as unfruitful as the deserts whence that unhappy berry is said to be brought; that the offspring of our mighty ancestors would dwindle into a succession of apes and pigmies; and on a domestic message, a husband would stop by the way to drink a couple of cups of coffee.” It was now sold in convenient penny-worths; for in another poem in praise of a coffee-house, for the variety of information obtained there, it is called “a penny university.”

Amidst these contests of popular prejudices, between the lovers of forsaken Canary, and the terrors of our females at the barrenness of an Arabian desert, which lasted for twenty years, at length the custom was universally established; nor were there wanting some reflecting minds desirous of introducing the use of this liquid among the labouring classes of society, to wean them from strong liquors. Howell, in noticing that curious philosophical traveller, Sir Henry Blount’s “Organon Salutis,” 1659, observed that “this coffa-drink hath caused a great sobriety among all nations: formerly apprentices, clerks, &c., used to take their morning draughts in ale, beer, or wine, which often made them unfit for business. Now they play the good-fellows in this wakeful and civil drink. The worthy gentleman, Sir James Muddiford, who introduced the practice hereof first in London, deserves much respect of the whole nation.” Here it appears, what is most probable, that the use of this berry was introduced by other Turkish merchants, besides Edwards and his servant Pasqua. But the custom of drinking coffee among the labouring classes does not appear to have lasted; and when it was recently even the cheapest beverage, the popular prejudices prevailed against it, and ran in favour of tea. The contrary practice prevails on the continent, where beggars are viewed making their coffee in the street. I remember seeing the large body of shipwrights at Helvoetsluys summoned by a bell, to take their regular refreshment of coffee; and the fleets of Holland were not then built by arms less robust than the fleets of Britain.

The frequenting of coffee-houses is a custom which has declined within our recollection, since institutions of a higher character, and society itself, have so much improved within late years. These were, however, the common assemblies of all classes of society. The mercantile man, the man of letters, and the man of fashion, had their appropriate coffee-houses. The Tatler dates from either to convey a character of his subject. In the reign of Charles the Second, 1675, a proclamation for some time shut them all up, having become the rendezvous of the politicians of that day. Roger North has given, in his Examen, a full account of this bold stroke: it was not done without some apparent respect to the British constitution, the court affecting not to act against law, for the judges were summoned to a consultation, when, it seems, the five who met did not agree in opinion. But a decision was contrived that “the retailing of coffee and tea might be an innocent trade; but as it was said to nourish sedition, spread lies, and scandalise great men, it might also be a common nuisance.” A general discontent, in consequence, as North acknowledges, took place, and emboldened the merchants and retailers of coffee and tea to petition; and permission was soon granted to open the houses to a certain period, under a severe admonition, that the masters should prevent all scandalous papers, books, and libels from being read in them; and hinder every person from spreading scandalous reports against the government. It must be confessed, all this must have frequently puzzled the coffee-house master to decide what was scandalous, what book was fit to be licensed to be read, and what political intelligence might be allowed to be communicated. The object of the government was, probably, to intimidate, rather than to persecute, at that moment.

Chocolate the Spaniards brought from Mexico, where it was denominated Chocolati; it was a coarse mixture of ground cacao and Indian corn with rocou; but the Spaniards, liking its nourishment, improved it into a richer compound, with sugar, vanilla, and other aromatics. The immoderate use of chocolate in the seventeenth century was considered as so violent an inflamer of the passions, that Joan. Fran. Rauch published a treatise against it, and enforced the necessity of forbidding the monks to drink it; and adds, that if such an interdiction had existed, that scandal with which that holy order had been branded might have proved more groundless. This Disputatio medico-diætetica de aëre et esculentis, necnon de potû, Vienna, 1624, is a rara avis among collectors. This attack on the monks, as well as on chocolate, is said to be the cause of its scarcity; for we are told that they were so diligent in suppressing this treatise, that it is supposed not a dozen copies exist. We had chocolate-houses in London long after coffee-houses; they seemed to have associated something more elegant and refined in their new term when the other had become common.6 Roger North thus inveighs against them: “The use of coffee-houses seems much improved by a new invention, called chocolate-houses, for the benefit of rooks and cullies of quality, where gaming is added to all the rest, and the summons of W—— seldom fails; as if the devil had erected a new university, and those were the colleges of its professors, as well as his schools of discipline.” Roger North, a high Tory, and Attorney-General to James the Second, observed, however, these rendezvous were often not entirely composed of those “factious gentry he so much dreaded;” for he says “This way of passing time might have been stopped at first, before people had possessed themselves of some convenience from them of meeting for short despatches, and passing evenings with small expenses.” And old Aubrey, the small Boswell of his day, attributes his general acquaintance to “the modern advantage of coffee-houses in this great city, before which men knew not how to be acquainted, but with their own relations, and societies;” a curious statement, which proves the moral connexion with society of all sedentary recreations which induce the herding spirit.

1 Dr. James, the translator of “Pauli’s Treatise on Tea,” 1746, says: “According to the Chinese, tea produces an appetite after hunger and thirst are satisfied; therefore, the drinking of it is to be abstained from.” He concludes his treatise by saying: “As Hippocrates spared no pains to remove and root out the Athenian plague, so have I used the utmost of my endeavours to destroy the raging epidemical madness of importing tea into Europe from China.”

2 Edinburgh Review, 1816, p. 117.

3 Modern collectors have gone beyond this, and exhibited “Elizabethan tea-pots,” which are just as likely to be true. There is no clear proof of the use of tea in England before the middle of the seventeenth century. This ante-dating of curiosities is the weakness of collectors.

4 Aubrey, speaking of this house, then in other hands, says that Bowman’s Coffee-house in St. Michael’s Alley, established 1652, was the first opened in London. About four years afterwards, James Farr, a barber, opened another in Fleet-street, by the Inner Temple gate. Hatton, in his “New View of London,” 1708, says it is “now the Rainbow,” and he narrates how Farr “was presented by the Inquest of St. Dunstan’s -in-the-West, for making and selling a sort of liquor called coffee, as a great nuisance and prejudice to the neighbourhood.” The words of the presentment are, that “in making the same he annoyeth his neighbours by evill smells.” Hatton adds, with naïveté, “Who would then have thought London would ever have had near 3000 such nuisances, and that coffee would have been (as now) so much drank by the best of quality and physicians.” It is, however, proper to note that coffee-houses had been opened in Oxford at an earlier date. Anthony Wood informs us that one Jacob, a Jew, opened a coffee-house in the parish of St. Peter-in-the-East, at Oxford, as early as 1650.

5 This witty poet was not without a degree of prescience; the luxury of eating spiders has never indeed become “modish,” but Mons. Lalande, the French astronomer, and one or two humble imitators of the modern philosopher, have shown this triumph over vulgar prejudices, and were epicures of this stamp.

6 “Not only tea, which we have from the East, but also chocolate, which is imported from the West Indies, begins to be famous.“— Dr. James’s “Treatise on Tobacco, Tea, Coffee, and Chocolate.” 1746.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37