A History of the World in Six Glasses

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Tea Symbol Icon

As with coffee, tea began to take on symbolic meaning in the instant that it became a European beverage (it was symbolic long before that in Eastern cultures, but Standage touches on this very little). The British fondness for tea is world-famous, and in Six Glasses, tea can be said to symbolize not only Britain but the British Empire as well. Indeed, the Empire fought more than one war with the goal of ensuring the flow of tea from its colonies into Britain. Even today, tea is most popular in countries that were once colonies of the British Empire—a reminder of the strong cultural and symbolic association between the beverage and the nation that consumed it.

Tea Quotes in A History of the World in Six Glasses

The A History of the World in Six Glasses quotes below all refer to the symbol of Tea. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Walker Publishing Company edition of A History of the World in Six Glasses published in 2006.
Introduction Quotes

In some European nations, and particularly in Britain, coffee was challenged by tea imported from China. Its popularity in Europe helped to open lucrative trade routes with the East and underpinned imperialism and industrialization on an unprecedented scale, enabling Britain to become the first global superpower.

Related Symbols: Coffee, Tea
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Standage gives an example of how we can learn about history by studying a specific beverage. The cultural and military competition between Britain and China during the 18th and 19th centuries was mirrored in the gastronomical competition between coffee and tea. This makes a certain kind of sense: a civilization that's powerful and wealthy will have the resources to spread its cultural artifacts around the world. In this way, one could say that tea and coffee are "cultural markers—-i.e., every cup of tea or coffee consumed is a cultural victory for China or Britain, respectively.

Standage is also making the stronger claim that Britain became an imperialist superpower in part because of the popularity of tea: Britain traded heavily with China because British people enjoyed the taste of that particular drink. Throughout the book, Standage will study beverages from both of these perspectives. At times he'll argue that beverages reflect world history; elsewhere, he argues that beverages can themselves change world history.

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Chapter 9 Quotes

For the poor, tea gradually became an affordable luxury, and then a necessity: tricks such as stretching a small quantity of tea with the addition of more water or reusing tea leaves, finally brought the drink within everyone’s reach, in some form at least.

Related Symbols: Tea
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

As the quote makes clear, the history of tea illustrates how a once-exotic beverage gradually becomes more affordable and accessible for a large group of people. Tea used to be a luxury, available only for those who could afford to import it from China. But as the Western world began to trade with China more regularly, tea became a normal part of life for average Western people.

The phrase "in some form at least" provides an important point of clarification. Standage isn't saying that all kinds of tea became equally available for all kinds of people. On the contrary, some kinds of tea remained exotic and expensive, while others became cheaper and commoner. The history of tea illustrates how a beverage (or a commodity more generally) slowly becomes more widely available: its quality and price become stratified.

Chapter 10 Quotes

Just as deskbound clerks, businessmen, and intellectuals had taken to coffee in the seventeenth century, the workers in the new factories of the eighteenth century embraced tea. It was the beverage best suited to these new working arrangements and helped industrialization along in a number of ways. Mill owners began to offer their employees free “tea breaks” as a perk.

Related Symbols: Tea
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

In the 18th century, the modern European economy and class system was beginning to take form. And, as the quotation states, beverages were an important benchmark of the newly emerging class system: different parts of European society drank different drinks, and defined themselves by their choice of beverage. While upper middle class intellectuals preferred coffee, working class people preferred tea.

What factors made coffee a distinctly middle class, intellectual drink and tea a more common working-class drink? Standage doesn't (and can't) offer a complete answer to this question. While he suggests that coffee was a good fit for intellectuals because it focused the mind, he also admits that a social class's drinking preference is partly coincidental. Had coffee or tea become available at a slightly different historical era, then tea could have become the intellectual's drink and coffee the preferred drink of the factory worker.

Britain has remained a nation of tea drinkers ever since [the glory days of the British Empire]. And around the world, the historical impact of its empire and the drink that fueled it can still be seen today.

Related Symbols: Tea
Page Number: 220
Explanation and Analysis:

The quotation sums up Standage's history of tea consumption by reiterating the close relationship between the United Kingdom and tea—and between empires and beverages in general. Although Britain did not discover tea, it spread tea around the world. Tea was a virtual symbol of the British Empire, the international force that conquered and colonized more than a quarter of the Earth's surface during the 18th and 19th centuries. Wherever the British founded a new country, they established places for the production, sale, and consumption of tea. In this sense, the popularity of tea provided a benchmark for the strength of the British Empire.

The enduring popularity of tea in former British colonies, such as Canada, Australia, and India, illustrates the full influence of British imperialism. Even if Britain no longer exerts military or political control over Canada or India, the popularity of a distinctly British drink there confirms Britain's "soft power"; its cultural influence on these territories. 

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Tea Symbol Timeline in A History of the World in Six Glasses

The timeline below shows where the symbol Tea appears in A History of the World in Six Glasses. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Introduction: Vital Fluids
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...understand important things about human culture. He singles out six drinks: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola. Each one was “the defining drink during a pivotal historical period.” (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
In the 18th and 19th century, tea became the defining drink of the British Empire. As the British Empire colonize the world,... (full context)
Chapter 9: Empires of Tea
Imperialism Theme Icon
...a huge amount of territory in such places as New Zealand, Canada, India, and Australia. Tea, Standage argues, linked all these areas together. (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Tea was invented in China, supposedly by the Emperor Shen Nung. The Emperor considered tea a... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Like many other drinks, tea was used as a form of currency in China: it was popular and commonly consumed... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
Tea drinking was also popular in Japan. Japanese tea drinking ceremonies were complex, almost mystical rituals... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Tea reached Europe in the 16th century, when European sailors first arrived in China, then the... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
For various reasons, Britain became the nation most heavily associated with tea. The British began their world-famous love for tea in the 1660s, when King Charles II... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
In the 1730s, England became filled with tea gardens—public spaces where women and men could drink tea together. The tea garden was popular... (full context)
Chapter 10: Tea Power
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
...mills where workers controlled spinning frames as they produced clothing. Arkwright gave his workers regular tea breaks. Tea, he found, was a sensible drink, because it was sterile (water had to... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
The popularity of tea encouraged the Industrial Revolution in many ways. Not only were workers given tea at factories... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
...scientific tradition, a strong work ethic, large supplies of coal, etc. But the demand for tea also played a small but important role in the era: tea was a sterile, healthy... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
...one of the most powerful organizations in the world. This company was responsible for obtaining tea supplies from around the world, colonizing entire countries to do so. The company’s influence was... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...1780s, the British East India Company was in good shape, largely because new sources of tea resulted in lower tea prices throughout the British Empire. These low prices made tea smuggling... (full context)
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...that Britain should have a balance of trade with China because it purchased so much tea from China. As a result, opium quickly became the commodity that Britain exchanged with China... (full context)
Imperialism Theme Icon
Equality and Elitism Theme Icon
...the 1700s was the wealthiest and most sophisticated country on the planet. The demand for tea had thus changed British foreign policy—and world history. (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
...Britain had fought an entire war to ensure its ability to trade opium—and thus consume tea from China—it also pursued ways of growing its own tea. In the early 1800s, it... (full context)
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
Imperialism Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Although the British Empire knew that it could grow tea in Assam, it wasn’t clear how tea bushes should be cultivated to ensure maximum production.... (full context)
Imperialism Theme Icon
Freedom and Self-Control Theme Icon
Drinking Spaces and Community Theme Icon
At present, India is still the world’s biggest producer of tea, thanks in no small part to the work of Charles Bruce. India is also the... (full context)