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Monday, May 11, 2020

Hyson Tea: A Small Adventure in Historical Research

Hyson tea was even a favorite of Thomas Jefferson
"February 8," the jail receipt read, "1/4 lb. Hyson tea, 3s. 9d., 1 lb. sugar, 1s. 6d. for Betsey Walker
she being brought to bed by a son the previous night, 5s. 3d."

The receipt goes on to list ginger and more sugar two days later and the cost of the midwife. Later notations document tea and sugar and midwife expenses for Susanna Harpe, and then tea, sugar, and whiskey for Sally Harpe, after each of them gave birth in the Danville Jail, Kentucky, in February, March, and April 1799 respectively.

I've covered the saga of the Harpes and their unfortunate women elsewhere--and give a full fictionalized treatment in my most recent book The Blue Cloak--but while researching their story I ran across this notation and immediately wondered, just what is Hyson tea?

Well. Turns out Hyson was a well-known and much-loved variety of green tea, dating at least to the 18th century, sometimes considered a mediocre variety but valued enough by the British to carry a higher tax rate than others. It reportedly accounts for 70 of the 300+ cases of tea destroyed during the Boston Tea Party.

Tea instead of coffee for the sake of research is no hardship
Further investigation revealed that part of the tea's charm comes from the slow unfurling of entire leaves, twisted and dried whole, and the light, delicate green tea flavor. (See this short but informative article at The Right Tea, explaining its origin and extolling its virtues.) To my surprise, the variety of tea is still available, and though more of a coffee drinker than tea, I caved to my curiosity and bought some. I also found a sampler offering all the tea varieties dumped into Boston Harbor, but sadly waited too long before purchasing and now it's no longer available. At any rate, Hyson tea does indeed have a pleasing taste, even without milk or sweetener, but especially when not forgotten and oversteeped. :-)

It's curious that the tea, with sugar, was considered part of the care and courtesy extended a postpartum woman, even one forced by the nefarious deeds of her "family" to give birth in jail. Maybe not surprising, given the reported benefits modern-day science has found of green tea in general. Regardless, the notation from jail and court records of the time provides a fascinating glimpse of the material culture of the past. And it's been just plain fun to taste a tea that just may have been very similar to that enjoyed by our colonial and Federal foremothers ... and even offered comfort and sustenance to three hapless new mothers in a Kentucky jail in 1799.

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