The teabag movement: Some archeological thoughts

Some questions crossed my mind the other day as I watched the coverage of teabaggers at a rally. At almost every rally there was at least one person festooned with teabags. \’Do these people think that the tea thrown into Boston Harbor in 1773 was packaged in tea bags?\’ \’Do they think that the tea the Founding Fathers drank was brewed using tea bags?\’ and \’Do they think that tea bags are historically associated with conservatism?\’

As comic and irrelevant as those questions might seem to be they help to identify some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings that befall many in the teabag movement.

First, \’Do these people think that the tea thrown into Boston Harbor in 1773 was packaged in tea bags?\’

No, it wasn\’t (and more on that below.) I ask the question because I am fairly sure that many of the people in the movement (many of whom are decorating their hats and caps with teabags) have no clear idea of what happened at (or caused) the original Boston Tea Party. Yes chests of tea were thrown into the Boston Harbor. Yes, the destruction of the tea was part of a larger action to protest taxation without representation. But much of the anger about the Tea Act of 1773 was that it was passed in part to support what we would now call a large multinational corporation (the East India Company) by allowing it to charge less for tea than its local (to Boston) competitors who were smuggling tea into the colonies.

If any group today did what the \”tea partiers\” did in 1773–trespass on private property and destroy merchandise and goods for the purpose of making a political statement against the government–they would be labelled terrorists.

Second, \’Do they think that the tea the Founding Fathers drank was brewed using tea bags?\’

The rhetoric of the modern \”teabaggers\” is often that of originalism and constitutional essentialism yet there was at the time not a particularly strong association between that act of rebellion with the larger project of colonial independence. Indeed many of the early histories of the American Revolution played down or ignored what was then called \”the act of the destruction of the tea\” since it had been violence aimed at private property not the installation of an oppressing government. Given the laudatory rhetoric about corporations, capitalism and private property of many modern day teabaggers one wonders if they realize they are lionizing an attack on the very things they appear to hold most dear.

Third, \’Do they think that tea bags are historically associated with conservatism?\’

If the tea baggers wish to associate themselves with the \”old days\” and \”old ways\” it would better serve them to sprinkle themselves with loose tea leaves. The brewing of tea with tea bags is a quite recent custom. The tea bag is the accidental creation of an American tea merchant who, about 100 years ago, sent out samples of his tea leaves in silk sachets which some recipients thought were to be used for the brewing of tea. It took some time for the practice of using tea bags become wide spread (especially in England) and even today many tea snobs consider tea brewed from bags rather than loose leaves to be of inferior quality. Indeed they argue that the use of tea bags is yet another sign of the modern day devaluing of the things that matter and the turning away from the manners and beliefs of our forefathers.

In short, the history of the tea bag and the act of the destruction of the tea suggests that the tea bag itself is a symbol of much that the teabaggers despise and the teabaggers\’ ignorance of the real history and meaning of the tea bag and the act of the destruction of the teat make the tea bag a perfect symbol of all the modern day teabag party stands for.

4 thoughts on “The teabag movement: Some archeological thoughts

  1. > many tea snobs… have a point. There's nothing wrong with bags as such, but tea producers tend to put the last dusty remnants into the bags after they've packaged all the decent tea they can for sale as loose leaves, so there usually IS a perceptible difference in quality.Excellent post, though.

  2. The bit about the original tea party being a protest against the government favoring a giant multinational corporation is a delicious point. I'll remember that for future conversations.The rest of this comment is offtopic tea snobbery.Speaking as a (Chinese looseleaf) tea snob, tea bags also require the tea to be chopped up, and prevent it from being examined up close. Quality tea has a high picking standard (leaves to stems ratio), but tea bags allow more stems to slip through by dicing everything up fine and discouraging examination on the part of the buyer.Quality tea uses leaves picked at the same time from the same cultivar at the same location and processed the same way, but there's not much you can tell about any of this from the leaf fragments inside tea bags, even if you're willing to ruin the bags by opening them.Green and white teas only remain good for about a year after picking, but it's very difficult to tell the age of leaf fragments, again, even if you're willing to ruin the bags by opening them.I've had tea from tea bags that was even marketed as the wrong type of tea – black tea marketed as oolong, green tea marketed as white, and you have to take the manufacturer's word for it until you brew because the leaves are fragmented beyond recognition and further disguised by the bag.

  3. You want an even more delicious irony? The Boston Tea Party was quite literally a riot against taxes being lowered. The way the government was favouring the multinational was to drop taxes on tea. The multinational had the advantage of economies of scale and of owning the supply chain. The smugglers had the advantage that, being smugglers, they did not pay tax. Lowering the tax gave the multinational lower overheads – meaning that the smuggler's advantage (not paying tax) was neutralised so they could no longer (illegally) compete with the multinational.

  4. @Francis: Excellent point. It does remind me somewhat of the present day government of the US erecting barriers that make it more expensive for Americans to buy drugs that it does for Canadians on the other side of the border.

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