The History of Sweet Tea

In writing historical novels, I am often researching what had been invented at the time the story takes place. What kind of device was used to wash clothing? Was electricity or indoor plumbing a thing?

Recently I was wondering if sweet tea was a thing back in the 1850s. I knew there was tea – the hot drink that comes in fancy cups – because of the Boston Tea Party, and well, England is our parent country and they’re all about their teas.

So I researched the history of Southern Sweet Tea. It is my favorite beverage, and I often say I’m a sweet tea addict. Of course, I want to work it into my books, but I needed to know when it was invented.

(c) Allison Wells 2020

Tea in the US was first grown in South Carolina – how convenient for me and my writing! It was first noted to be gown about 1795 after being introduced by french botanist Andre Michaux. (Interestingly enough, Michaux is noted for discovering the Oconee Bell, a beautiful little flower that only grows in the mountains near where I live.)

In the early 1800s, green tea punch, as it was called, was often served chilled and spiked with liquor. It was made from green tea leaves, not black as we use today. It was often called Regent’s Punch, as George IV was prince regent in the 1810s. In the mid-1800s, it had taken on more Americanized names.

An 1839 cookbook from Kentucky has a recipe for Tea Punch as follows:
“Tea Punch – Make a pint and a half of very strong tea in the usual manner; strain it, and pour it boiling (hot) on one pound and a quarter of loaf sugar. (That’s 2 1/2 cups white sugar) Add half a pint of rich sweet cream, and then stir in gradually a bottle of claret or of champaign (sic). You may heat it to the boiling point, and serve it so, or you may send it round entirely cold, in glass cups.”

I cannot imagine pouring cream into my sweet tea. And while spiked versions of tea certainly exist, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it being mixed with claret or champignon.

It was recommended in another cookbook to make this at breakfast to consume chilled at suppertime.

In 1884 we finally see black tea used in a recipe:
“Ice Tea or Russian Tea – Make the tea by the first receipt, strain it from the grounds, and keep it cool. When ready to serve, put two cubes of block sugar in a glass, half fill with broken ice, add a slice of lemon, and fill the glass with cold tea.”

Iced tea became more popular with time and surged during prohibition when alcohol was outlawed and people needed something aside from water to drink.
During WWII, black tea became widely available and green tea increasingly rare.

Now it’s available in most Southern states at every restaurant. When McDonald’s came out with their “Mickey D’s Sweet Tea” it became available to a larger area of the US, though it remains to be more of a regional favorite.

So, short and sweet, the history of Sweet Tea in in the South. It’s a staple in our community – how about yours?

(c) Allison Wells 2020


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