The Empire’s Favourite Drink: Tea, Global Trade, and English National Identity

By Jessica Wright

Due to the emergence of ‘a truly multilateral network of world trade’, global exchange increased rapidly in the 19th century, growing two and a half times between 1800 and 1850, before multiplying tenfold in the following six decades.[1] Alongside this, the volume of tea imported in England expanded at a similar rate; as John Burnett explains, by the end of the century, tea consumption had increased ‘from 23,720,000 lb a year to 224,180,000 lb’.[2] In turn, tea-drinking rituals found their way into English domestic practice, and – as recorded by G.G. Sigmond in 1839 – the ‘social tea-table’ became ‘the fireside of our country, a national delight… the scene of domestic converse and of agreeable relaxation’.[3] However, complicating this cosy image, ‘[i]mporting and consuming goods from outside the borders of England created concern about definitions and boundaries’, therefore raising questions about ‘what it meant to be English’ in a nation that was becoming increasingly reliant upon commodities produced by other countries and unfamiliar cultures.[4] Permeating Victorian society, this tension is reflected in contemporary marketing material. Therefore, using five 19th century advertisements – for Edward Bell’s Tea Warehouse (1840s), Horniman’s Pure Tea (1863), Lipton’s Teas (1892), and two for the United Kingdom Tea Company (1880s and 1894) – I will explore the ways in which tea occupied a liminal space, mediating between English identity on both a national and an international scale, ultimately helping to redefine nationhood in a society that was becoming increasingly globalised.

Primarily, ‘A Fire Side Chat’ (fig. 1), produced to advertise Edward Bell’s Tea Warehouse in the 1840s, paints ‘a sweet picture of domestic life’, paralleling Sigmond’s narrative by evoking a sense of warmth and of comfort, and associating tea not with the exotic East, but with the essentials of the middle class Victorian home. The poem begins by setting up an idealised family scene, in which all are happy and ‘everything look’d snug’. The use of a regular rhythm and rhyming couplets also helps to create a sense of harmony, further strengthening the depiction of household bliss. However, most significantly, it is the preparation and consumption of tea that plays a central role in the creation of this image. In fact, the poem suggests that the domestic scene is only made ‘complete’ by the combination of ‘kitten, kettle, husband, child and wife’. This list subtly aligns the ‘kettle’, and hence tea more generally, with the rest of the family; the drink becomes another member of the domestic unit, and therefore, without it, the household would remain ‘[in]complete’. Ultimately, this suggests that tea strengthened, rather than disrupted, the harmony of the quintessential English home, reinforcing the family values that shaped much of what it meant to be English in the mid-19th century. In turn, this bolstered the clear cut national boundaries that globalisation threatened to weaken; as Julie E. Fromer asserts, the primary goal of domesticity was to ‘enclos[e] the English self… protecting that self by ensconcing him or her behind a set of firm boundaries’.[5] Therefore, by promoting tea as a way to secure domestic perfection, ‘A Fire Side Chat’ upholds these ‘boundaries’, thus conserving the national identity enclosed within.

fig 1

Fig. 1. ‘A Fire Side Chat’. Advertisement for Edward Bell’s Tea Warehouse. 1840-1850. Tea and Coffee 5 (12), John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.

However, in placing its emphasis on English domesticity, the poem makes no mention of the drink’s oriental origins; it does not appear to come from Asia, but simply from Edward Bell’s Warehouse, situated in the familiar ‘Lambeth Walk’, South London. Rather than mediating between England’s national identity and its participation in globalisation, the poem divorces the two, ignoring the global networks of exchange that made the widespread availability of tea possible, and erasing all traces of Britain’s status as an imperial power. However, in doing so, the advertisement exposes the pervasive fear of the unknown East through its very exclusion of it. Permeating English society, this fear threatened to corrupt traditional understandings of Englishness, and weaken the boundaries of the home by bringing the Orient in, thus complicating the ‘snug’ domesticity that the poem evokes. Therefore, by focusing on tea’s relationship to the domestic sphere as opposed to its oriental origins, ‘A Fire Side Chat’ reinforces the happy home as a marker of national identity, opting to exclude all mention of the East in an effort to preserve the quintessential English self, and ultimately sell its product in a deeply sinophobic society.

Published two decades later, the Horniman’s Pure Tea advertisement (fig. 2) reflects a similar fear of cultural corruption, repeating the capitalised adjective ‘PURE’ in a large font in order to reassure the Victorian public that their product would not put them at risk of contamination from the Orient. In fact, the text explicitly confirms that their tea is ‘not’ produced as the Chinese manufacture it, responding specifically to the pervasive anxiety felt about the adulteration of tea leaves in this period. In a literal sense, this validates the quality of Horniman’s tea; however, ideologically, it simultaneously helps to preserve English identity as pure, safe from the threat of the East. Furthering this notion, the advertisement also vows that Horniman’s tea is sold ‘only in packets – never loose’. As Fromer argues, the use of material packaging serves as a ‘reaffirmation of a physical barrier between Chinese tea and the English tea drinkers’.[6] In the same way that ‘A Fire Side Chat’ tries to reinforce the boundaries of the home to preserve the uncorrupted Englishness within, the Horniman’s advertisement endorses pre-packaged tea as a way to construct new, tangible boundaries, counteracting the national borders that were becoming more and more porous through the growth of foreign trade.[7] Essentially, both advertisements distinctly separate the oriental origins of tea from traditional understandings of English identity, solving the tension between Englishness and global trade by constructing clear boundaries between the English consumer and the East.

fig 2

Fig. 2. Advertisement for Horniman’s Pure Tea. July 1863. Tea and Coffee 2 (14), John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.

In contrast, the Lipton’s advertisement (fig. 3), published in The Illustrated London News in 1892, visually depicts the exoticism of the Orient, featuring the image of an Indian woman, as indicated by her coloured skin and Asian clothes. As Patrick Brantlinger explains, this was not uncommon in the second half of the 19th century; in fact, after the Great Exhibition of 1851, ‘imperial imagery provided the leitmotif for modern advertising’.[8] However, rather than embodying the harsh realities of life in the Indian tea gardens, the woman exhibits the qualities of ideal Englishness. Daintily holding the cup of tea with small hands, and submissively averting her eyes from meeting the consumer’s in a direct gaze, she appropriates the tea drinking etiquette of the bourgeois woman. As in ‘A Fire Side Chat’, this clearly demonstrates how the drink had become bound up with rituals of English domesticity, exposing its close relationship to the heavily feminised sphere of the English home. However, unlike both Edward Bell’s poem and the Horniman’s advertisement, the image attempts to mediate between this sense of national identity and Britain’s engagement in global trade by blurring Western ideals with an Eastern aesthetic. This helps to alleviate English anxieties, implying that tea was produced not by savages from uncivilised lands, but by subjects of the British Empire, tamed by the colonial civilising missions. Strengthening this message further is the indication that the tea is ‘pure’, coming ‘[d]irect from the Tea Garden to the Tea Pot’. As John M. MacKenzie maintains, this emphasises Lipton’s ‘vertical control over the tea industry’,[9] thus defining the production of the drink as wholly British from start to finish, despite its naturally Asian origins. In turn, this implicitly celebrates Britain’s imperial power, helping to shape the national identity as strong, asserting dominance over the rest of the 19th century world, rather than creating barriers against it.

fig 3

Fig. 3. Advertisement for Lipton’s Teas. The Illustrated London News. 10 Dec. 1892: 761. The British Newspaper Archive, British Library, London, UK.

Furthering this sense of national superiority, it is also significant to note the feminine gender of the Indian subject in this image. As Anandi Ramamurthy explains, the Orient was often ‘identified as female in European thought’; therefore, in line with the binary understanding of gender that permeated 19th century society, the Occident, as the East’s ‘natural’ opposite, was characterised as masculine, based upon its ‘qualities of reason, intellect, action, dynamism and natural leadership’.[10] Consequently, this notion projected the gender hierarchy onto nation, positioning the masculine West, of which Victorian England was the core, as inherently superior to the feminine East. Hence, by using the iconography of the Asian woman, the Lipton’s advertisement covertly celebrates the strength of Britain, juxtaposing it against the submissiveness of the Asian countries under its rule. Unlike Edward Bell’s poem and the Horniman’s advertisement, the Lipton’s image promotes England’s global expansion, transcending the fear of cultural contamination, and instead, presenting the oriental origins of tea as a marker of the nation’s imperial power.

Similarly, this celebratory tone is reflected in the United Kingdom Tea Company advertisement, published in the 1880s (fig. 4). The image depicts three women wearing the traditional national dress of Scotland, England, and India, from left to right. However, beyond their attire, there is no visible ethnic variation between them; they all share the same pale complexion and golden curls, thus conforming to the beauty ideals of Victorian England. This takes the projection of English values onto foreign cultures, as seen in the Lipton’s advertisement, one step further, implying that the colonial space has not merely been ‘domesticated’, to use Anne McClintock’s phrase, but that it has also been culturally cleansed.[11] Only then can the women stand together, linking arms, united. However, despite their apparent sense of unity, issues of cultural hierarchy are still subtly at play. Standing in the middle, and slightly in front of her companions, the English woman clearly forms the visual focus of the advertisement. Equally, she is taller than the other figures, and her white and pink clothing stands out against the green and yellow shades of their foreign attire. Together, these visual devices work to characterise the English lady as superior; she appears to assume a position of leadership while her friends tilt their heads to look up at her in admiration. Therefore, in tension with the ‘United’ front that the company promotes, these three women allegorically depict the power of Victorian England in relation to the submissive territories under its control. Thus, the advertisement demonstrates the strength of England’s identity in two key ways. Primarily, it exposes England’s cultural strength as it expands outwards, influencing and redefining the nations under its command; however, it simultaneously suggests that even after this unification has taken place, England still remains hierarchically superior, strong and supreme, maintaining clear control over its Empire.

fig 4

Fig. 4. Advertisement for United Kingdom Tea Company. 1880-1890. Tea and Coffee 4 (57c), John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.

Building upon this, it is important to note that this image became the ‘trade mark’ motif of the United Kingdom Tea Company; for example, a second of their advertisements, published in 1894 under the title ‘Tea First Hand’, replicates the same three women in miniature, pasted onto multiple crates of tea (fig. 5).[12] Overtly ‘eulogis[ing] colonisation’ (Ramamurthy 99), this image features Britannia – the embodiment of power in her Roman-style military headwear – calmly pouring a cup of tea, whilst a group of Asian workers carry their produce in the background. As before, Britannia’s central foreground position firmly places her, and hence England, at the top of the hierarchy, while the smaller figures in the background, collectively representative of the Orient, remain subservient under her command. However, most significantly, Britannia sits not on a chair, but on a crate of tea, decorated with the three women as described above, suggesting that England’s national strength quite literally ‘rests upon a foundation of foreign trade’.[13] Therefore, like Lipton’s Teas, the United Kingdom Tea Company celebrates England’s engagement in international exchange as a support, rather than a threat, to the stability of the nation’s identity.

fig 5

Fig. 5. ‘Tea First Hand.’ Advertisement for United Kingdom Tea Company. May 1895. Tea and Coffee 4 (52), John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.

Essentially, as James Buzard explains, the 19th century British economy was so ‘embroiled… in its far-flung investments of capital and personnel that locating the British or English ‘way of life’… seemed a daunting project’.[14] By analysing a range of marketing material produced by Victorian tea traders, it is possible to tease out the pervasive tension between local and global aspects of national identity, as faced by the 19th century public. As the above examples demonstrate, no one straightforward solution can be found; rather, a vast range of techniques were used throughout the century to redefine Englishness with differing effect. While ‘A Fire Side Chat’ and Horniman’s Pure Tea endeavour to preserve a more traditional sense of Englishness by constructing boundaries against the East, both Lipton’s Teas and the United Kingdom Tea Company use alternative methods, celebrating England’s imperial power, and thus sculpting the national identity as strong and authoritative against the backdrop of an increasingly globalised world. As a further study would demonstrate, these issues spill out well beyond the confines of the 19th century, hence exposing the complexity of national identity further. However, after analysing the five archival sources used in this essay, it becomes clear that the marketing of tea in Victorian England was inextricably bound up with these tensions, mediating between national and global, and ultimately responding to the anxieties – to the question: what did it mean to be English? – that spread throughout the nation.


[1] Cain, P.J. ‘Economics and Empire: The Metropolitan Context’ in Ed. Andrew Porter (ed.), The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume III: The Nineteenth Century, (Oxford, 1999), 42.

[2] Ibid, 57.

[3] Ibid, 3.

[4] Fromer, J. E., A Necessary Luxury: Tea in Victorian England, (Ohio, 2008), p. 10.

[5] Ibid, p. 27.

[6] Ibid, p. 39.

[7] Ibid, p. 39.

[8] Brantlinger, P., ‘Imperialism at Home.’ Victorian World. (Oxford, 2012), p. 127.

[9] MacKenzie, J. M., Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960, (Manchester, 1984), p. 26.

[10] Ramamurthy, A., ‘Tea Advertising and its Ideological Support for Vertical Control Over Production’ in Imperial Persuaders: Images of Africa and Asia in British Advertising, (Manchester, 2003), p. 117.

[11] McClintock, A., Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest, (Oxford, 1995) p. 36.

[12] Fromer, J. E., ‘‘Deeply Indebted to the Tea-Plant’: Representations of English National Identity in Victorian Histories of Tea’, Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 6, No. 2,(2008), 542.

[13] Ibid, 542.

[14] Buzard, J.,  Disorientating Fiction: The Autoethnographic Work of Nineteenth-Century British Novels, (Princeton, 2005), p. 57.

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