Who was he?
One of history’s great tea drinkers. Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784), was an English writer who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. Dr. Johnson was one of the greatest literary figures of the eighteenth century
Okay… but, what’s the connection between Dr. Johnson and tea?
Well, he was a VERY passionate devotee of tea, perhaps even to be said obsessive about tea (a man after my own heart) – and that to me makes him the quintessential tea drinker! Dr. Johnson was an advocate of drinking tea, despite it being considered by many in his time as unfit for human consumption and an unhealthy beverage. He in many ways established the way the British were to drink it. He was most famous for compiling a huge Dictionary of the English Language, (no doubt under the stimulation of tea) and when he received a significant sum for this publication the first thing he bought was an expertly crafted silver teapot!
His trusty housekeeper was totally blind, and she used to put her finger inside the cup, when pouring his tea, making sure the cup never overflowed.
A tea cheerleader…
He described himself as “a hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has, for twenty years, diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and, with tea, welcomes the morning…” Dr. Johnson lived most of his life without money and was often in debt. But, despite being poor and unable to afford tea, he was often at great liberty to rid others of theirs! In various records housekeepers, maids and hosts recount their horrors at the vast quantities of tea he would consume. Once, at the house of a distinguished lady, he kept passing his cup for more and more, until he had ingested thirty-two cups. The lady said: “Dr. Johnson, you drink too much tea.” Johnson said “Madam, you are insolent.”
Another incident regarding cups of tea…
Once at a party, the host reminded Johnson that he had drunk eleven cups of tea. “Sir,” he replied “I did not count your glasses of wine, why should you number my cups of tea? Sir, I should have released the lady from any further troubles if it had not been for your remark; but you have reminded me that I want one of the dozen, and I must request Mrs. Cumberland to round up my number.” P. S. He took his tea strong, the bite of the tannin being allayed with a little milk, adding sugar in little lumps. The following sums up what was his own preference:
“Now hear it then, my Rennie dear,
Nor hear it with a frown;
You cannot make the tea so fast
As I can gulp it down.
I therefore pray thee, Rennie dear,
That thou wilt give to me
With cream and sugar softened well,
Another dish of tea.”
A famous feud…
In 1757 the philanthropist Jonas Hanway published an essay on the effects of tea drinking, saying he considered it, “as pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation”. He was particularly concerned about its effect on women: “How many sweet creatures of your sex, languish with weak digestion, low spirits, lassitude’s, melancholy, and… nervous complaints? Tell them to change their diet, and among other articles leave off drinking tea, it is more than probable the greatest part of them will be restored to health.” But more than just injurious to women, Hanway believed that tea-drinking risked ruining the nation, because of its increasing prevalence among the working classes, and associated the drinking of tea with the drinking of gin. He argued that the poor could ill-afford to spend their money on tea, claiming that ‘those have tea who have not bread”. He further stated that children born to poor mothers were dying because their mothers were spending all their money on tea and drinking this “liquid fire” while breast-feeding. All this rhetoric and much more.
Johnson, the “hardened and shameless tea-drinker,” not surprisingly, took exception to Hanway’s assertion that “the consumption of tea is injurious to the interest of our country.” All in all, the esteemed Mr. Johnson spent more than 4,000 words examining and attempting to refute Hanway’s claims for the “injurious” nature of tea. Included in his passionate reply to Mr. Hanway, Johnson said that as an ardent tea drinker himself, he never received harm from it… “I have drank it twenty years without hurt, and therefore believe it not to be poison.” The argument between the two continued back and forth, as Mr. Hanway was as furious with Johnson’s review as Johnson had been scathing about Hanway’s original work.
In the end…
Dr. Samuel Johnson, renowned for his gigantic tea appetite, sums up tea’s place in the world by saying…”Tea’s proper use is to amuse the idle, and relax the studious, and dilute the full meals of those who cannot use exercise, and will not use abstinence.”