John Coakley Lettsome

John Coakley Lettsome

As I noted in a recent article in these pages, the massive Google Books archive is a treasure trove for anyone with an interest in history, casual or otherwise. That includes tea lovers too. That article took a look at a volume from 1882 called The Tea Cyclopaedia. But there are tea books in the Google archive that go back farther than that, including The Natural History of the Tea-Tree, by John Coakley Lettsom. It originally appeared in 1772, not much more than a century after tea was first introduced to England.

A member of the Royal College of Physicians, Lettsom was also a philanthropist and abolitionist. The full title of his tea book is The Natural History of the Tea-Tree, with Observations on the Medical Qualities of Tea, and Effects of Tea-Drinking, and it provides an interesting snapshot of what he calls the “fashionable custom of Tea drinking.”

Though it had only been a part of the English diet for a little over a century, Lettsom estimated that about three million pounds of tea a year were being consumed. He bemoaned this to some extent because of his view that the “laboring people” were spending their scant and hard-earned dollars on tea rather than food. He also notes that a few of the many tea plants that were smuggled out of China were still surviving in their new English homes, an interesting aside, given the lengths the British would later go to obtain Chinese tea plants to cultivate in their new tea gardens in India.

At just under seventy pages, Lettsom’s book makes for a pretty quick read, though the background on the botany and botanical history of the plant itself might drag a bit for anyone without a specific interest in this sub-topic. Ditto for the section on Soil and Culture. But the chapters on the Origin of Tea, Drinking of Tea, and Gathering the Leaves help pick up the pace a bit.

The latter section of the book is devoted to a fairly in-depth examination titled The Medical History of Tea. Unlike some other commentators who wrote about tea in this era, Lettsom gives tea a passing grade, for the most part, when it comes to health benefits, a foreshadowing of what was to come in future centuries.

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