Drinking Tea Was Once Considered an Irresponsible, Reckless Pursuit for Women

Poor Irish women who drank tea in the 19th century might as well have been chugging a bottle of whiskey

Kelsey Christina Karstrand

Poor Irish women who drank tea in the 19th century might as well have been chugging a bottle of whiskey. Critics viewed the provocative kettle as stifling to their country’s economic growth and the tea-chugging habit as reckless and uncontrollable. Tea was a waste of time and money, luring working girls away from their never ending husband and home-tending duties.

Here are some “improvement pamphlet” messages from the time (circa 1811-1826), delivered to poor households and warning about the horrors awaiting if a damsel dared drink for the pot:

Lady Seraphine, the improving landowner, comments on the absence of tea cups in the kitchen of a peasant cabin, to which the woman of the house replies: ”We never were used to tea, and would not choose that our little girl should get a notion of any such thing. The hankering after a drop of tea keeps many poor all their lives. So I would not have any things in the cabin which would put us in mind of it.”

In response to her friend Nancy complaining about not being allowed a cup of tea by her mistress, her friend Rose replies: ”I think you are very much obliged to your mistress for not giving you such a bad fashion. What would you do in a house on your own? And you could not afford to drink tea, and you would be hankering after it, when you got the way of it.”

…you know Nanny will have it twice a day, if she can; and you are also to take into account the time spent about it. A poor person’s time is his treasure; how much is lost at it- how much is lost running to the grocer’s for it: and now you may see whether such a one as Nanny Ward is not able to beggar her family.

The Irish were not alone in their tea turmoils. The English—known now as perhaps the Western world’s most fond drinkers of tea—also worried that tea, or specifically, poor women drinking tea, might threaten the wholesome diet of British peasants, overturn hierarchies and be at the root of a secret revolutionary society. The reformers and worriers were, not surprisingly, mostly males from the middle- to upper-class.

Women were also banned from coffee shops throughout Europe during this time, where men would frequently partake in serious conversations, probably revolving around scheming more ways to prevent women from drinking tea and other caffeinated beverages.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Great British Tea Heist
The Great Tea Race of 1866

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.