Stories of American Life and Adventure - Edward Eggleston

The Coming of Tea and Coffee

When the first settlers came to this country, tea and coffee were unknown to them. The favorite drink of that time was a kind of weak beer, which was usually made at home. The first settlers in America could not buy drinks such as they had had in England, and in a new country they often could not make them. So they found out ways of making other drinks in place of them. What we call root beer and birch beer, and a drink flavored with the chips of the hickory tree, were made in New England. Farther south the people made a kind of drink by mixing water and molasses together, and putting in Indian corn.

Such drinks were taken at meals as we take tea and coffee. People also drank a great deal of cider. As the cows hardly ever gave any milk in winter, children were given cider and water to drink. But about fifty years after the time that the first settlers came to this country, people in England began to get tea and coffee. Tea and coffee were soon after brought into this country. At first they were thought to be medicines good for many diseases. Little books were written to tell how many diseases these new drinks would cure. Root beer and birch beer, and tea and coffee, were good things in one way. After they came into use, people did not care so much for stronger drinks.

When tea first came, it was very fashionable. It was called the new China drink. Along with the tea, people brought from China little teacups to drink it from. Most of the cups before this time had been made of pewter. The new cups and saucers were called chinaware. They also brought from China pretty little tables on which they set the teacups when they drank the tea.

When people first got tea in country places, they did not know how to use it. There was a minister in Connecticut who bought two pounds of tea in New York. He took it home with him, and put it away to use when anybody in his house should be ill. He wanted the tea for medicine. His daughters had heard about the fine ladies in town who took tea. They were curious to taste it, and were not willing to wait until they should be ill. So one afternoon, without letting their father know it, they asked two young men who were friends of theirs to the house. Then they got out the package of tea, intending to treat themselves and the young men to a new pleasure. They knew nothing about making tea. When they had boiled it a long time, they poured off the tea and threw it away. They put the tea leaves on a dish, and tried to eat them as one would eat spinach. This is the way they punished themselves for disobeying their father.

Before the Revolution, when gentlemen called at fine houses in the afternoon, the ladies always gave them tea to drink. As soon as a gentleman's little cup was empty, one of the ladies would fill it up again, and it was not polite to refuse to drink all the tea that was offered. A French prince who was in Philadelphia during the Revolution drank twelve little cups of tea one afternoon. The ladies kept giving him more, and the poor prince did not know how to stop them until another French gentleman told him privately that if he would lay his teaspoon across the top of the cup no more tea would be poured in. He put the teaspoon across the teacup as a sign that he did not wish to drink any more.

[Illustration] from American Life and Adventure by Edward Eggleston


Long after tea and coffee were in use in this country they were not known in the backwoods. The people on the frontier drank tea made from the root of the sassafras tree or from the leaves of some wild vines. The whole work of preparing food was done at home. When they wanted to grind meal, they did it by pounding corn in a hole cut in the stump of a tree. They used a large stone pounder which was tied by a rope to a limb of a tree above. After each blow the limb would spring back and raise the pounder. Their corn meal was sifted through a sieve made of deerskin with little holes punched through it. They had to make their shoes and hats and caps themselves, and to weave their cloth at home.

A boy who lived on the west side of the Alleghany Mountains in those days afterward wrote a book telling all about this rough life. His name was Joseph Doddridge. He spent his boyhood in a log cabin, in constant danger from Indians. The settlers had built a fort in the middle of the settlement. Sometimes in the night Joseph would hear a man tapping gently on the back window of his father's cabin. As soon as anybody waked up, the man would whisper, "Indians!" Joseph's father would then take down his gun. The children would be dressed in the dark as quickly as possible. Such things as would be needed in the fort were then picked up. Not a word was spoken, nor was any candle lighted. Even the little children learned to be perfectly silent, and the dogs were taught not to bark. When all was ready, the family would hurry away along the foot path to the fort. All the other families in the settlement would be called in the same way.

Every fall these settlers sent pack horses over the mountains. The horses were loaded with the skins of animals. When they came back, they carried salt, which was the one thing that could not be made in the settlement. But the men never thought it worth while to bring home with them tea and coffee or other unnecessary things.

When Joseph was about seven years of age, he was sent over the mountains to school. The little boy was very much puzzled when he first saw a house that was plastered inside. He had never in his life seen anything but a cabin built of logs. He could not understand how a plastered house was built. It seemed to him like something that had grown that way.

When supper time came in this plastered house, he saw a teacup and saucer for the first time in his life. The people in his neighborhood used wooden bowls to drink out of. But here he saw what seemed to him to be a little cup standing in a bigger one. He had never heard of coffee. He only knew that the brownish-looking stuff in his cup was not milk, or hominy, or soup. What to do with the little cups, or how to make use of the spoon that was in them, he could not tell, so he watched the big folks handle their cups and spoons. He drank the coffee just as they did, but he disliked it very much. It made the tears come into his eyes to drink it. When he got his cup nearly empty, it was filled again. He did not dare to say that he had had enough, and he did not know what to do. At last he saw one man turn his empty cup bottom upward in the saucer, and lay his little spoon across the bottom of the cup. That was the custom in those days. He saw that this man's cup was not filled any more. So Joseph drank his coffee as quickly as possible, turned his cup over in the saucer, and laid the spoon across the bottom. He was delighted that he did not have to drink any more coffee.