We often see tea as a comforting and healthy beverage choice, but did you know it can also have significant dangers? Many people worldwide drink tea daily, but few know the potential negative health consequences.
Hospitality often involves offering guests tea, a trend that became increasingly popular in nineteenth-century Ireland. However, there were concerns raised by medical and social commentators when tea drinking became associated with the lower classes.
According to historian Tricia Cusack, the tradition of afternoon tea spread from fashionable Dublin to the upper and middle classes throughout Ireland in the 1800s. Women used tea parties to showcase their family's social status, following strict rules of etiquette imported from England. These rules included serving high-quality tea on a silver tray and avoiding serious or controversial topics of conversation. Moderation was also essential, with one etiquette manual advising that ladies should not drink more than one cup of tea. Tea drinking became a symbol of Victorian femininity, where women were expected to invest significant effort into maintaining a clean and tidy home.
A stark contrast in the perception of tea drinking existed between the elite, urban poor, and farm laborers. While the elite enjoyed tea as a digestive aid after lavish meals and wine, British writer Simon Mason discouraged lower-ranked individuals from consuming tea, suggesting that it made them irritable and unkind to their spouses. He criticized those who neglected their domestic duties to imitate the upper class.
Adding to this disapproval, many commentators expressed their distaste for how the lower classes prepared tea. While etiquette dictated a quick steeping process, the poor would continuously brew tea on the stove or in the ashes of a fire, sharing it with neighbors or consuming it with meals. Medical authorities warned that this constant brewing extracted all the tannins from the tea, resulting in digestive problems, mental disorders, and even hallucinations.
Beware: Comments from the upper class warned that tea drinking among poor, destitute women was bad for their health and endanger social order. In a 19th-century story, a young woman cautions a servant about the addictive nature of tea, saying that it will leave her craving for more. Another tale depicts a family plagued by financial ruin because of the wife's tea-drinking habit, which drives her to steal. Cusack concludes that these differing viewpoints on tea drinking reflect its dual role: both important for maintaining a civilized social life and capable of undermining it.