Sales of green tea are rising in the U.S and the U.K., driven largely by evidence of the health benefits of this stimulating elixir. So it’s ironic that a little over a century ago, this so-called superfood was demonized as super toxic.
“For most of the 19th century, there was less concern about the perils of taking cocaine than there was about the negative side effects of drinking green tea,” writes Matthew Sweet in Inventing the Victorians: What We Think We Know About Them and Why We’re Wrong. “Readers of Victorian fiction and journalism were used to seeing green tea evoked as a stomach-churning, nerve-jangling threat to health.”
The disastrous press green tea received during the Victorian age was partially responsible for why so many tea drinkers made the switch to black. When tea was first introduced to England in the mid-1600s, it was largely green tea that was imported from China.
Through the 1700s, green remained popular in the West, promoted by doctors and groups like the Temperance Movement, who saw it as a healthy alternative to stimulants like beer. From expensive varieties such as Hyson and Gunpowder to the cheap Singlo, green was queen. The romantic poet Percy Shelley and his wife, novelist Mary Shelley, drank the best green tea money could buy. In the U.S., too, green was popular. One-fifth of the tea dumped into the Boston harbor in 1773 was green.
The backlash against green tea was caused by a mix of baseless fears (that it triggered hysteria and insomnia) and genuine concerns about it being toxic as a result of widespread adulteration. There was also the commercial angle. Though both black and green teas are made from the leaves of the same plant, black, which is oxidated, is drier and more compact than the wetter green tea. The transatlantic transportation of black tea was more profitable, since more could be packed into the ship’s hold with lower risk of spoilage.
But the real problem plaguing green tea was adulteration. Unscrupulous businessmen in the Chinese city of Guangzhou (Europeans called it Canton) and England resorted to all kinds of unseemly practices to bulk up consignments of green tea. In 1766, an earlier Act of Parliament levying a fine on adulterators was made more stringent with accompanying imprisonment. But even this did not deter dishonest dealers from adding iron filings and the leaves of other plants, such as hawthorn, and dying them with verdigris, Prussian blue, Dutch pink, ferrous sulphate, copper carbonate and sheep’s dung.
“Of these,” writes Roy Moxham in Tea: Addiction, Exploitation, And Empire, “sheep’s dung was probably the least harmful.” These dyes often leached out during the brewing process.
Adulterated tea was so dominant, writes Andrea Broomfield in Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History, that when the Co-operative Central Agency of London attempted to sell pure, uncolored green tea, people refused to buy it because it was the “wrong” color.
“The agency hired lecturers and took out advertisements to educate consumers about adulteration and about how green tea was supposed to look,” writes Broomfield.
Fears of drinking spurious green tea were compounded by the notion that excessive consumption caused hysteria and insomnia. In 1839, the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet carried a paper by one Dr. George Sigmond on the positive and negative effects of tea. While stating that green tea had medicinal properties, rendered warmth and comfort, and was a great improvement on fermented liquors, he made dire warnings against immoderate intake. Some of those partial to green tea, he wrote, complain “of a sensation of sinking at the stomach, a craving, an emptiness, and a fluttering in the chest.” To escape these “miserable sensations,” he continued, these green-tea habitués become addicted to drinking a glass of brandy an hour after tea.
The paper cited a case from the Glasgow Medical Journal of a woman “attacked with excruciating pain at the stomach” and alarming symptoms of hysteria, “uttering dreadful shrieks and perspiring profusely from the forehead.” Her symptoms were attributed to drinking strong green tea on an empty stomach, first thing in the morning, without diluting it with milk, cream or sugar. The only way she was finally soothed was by “the enormous dose of six grains of solid opium and four drachmas of tincture.”
With such scaremongering, it was scarcely surprising that the novelist Charlotte Bronte refused to drink tea infused with “the least particle of green leaf” for fear it would keep her up all night. When she stayed at the Manchester home of her friend, fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, the latter, knowing that the only tea she had was a mix of green and black, shrewdly kept mum about it and served it for evening tea. In the morning she asked her guest how she had slept. “Splendidly!” was her answer. Gaskell would gently ridicule this phobia in her novel Cranford, through the persona of the kind and unworldly spinster Miss Matty, who thinks shudderingly of green tea as “a slow poison, sure to destroy the nerves, and produce all manner of evil.”
The Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu added to the prevailing pathology in his 1872 gothic collection, In a Glass Darkly, by titling his first story Green Tea. In it, an English clergyman who drinks this brew every night before bedtime is haunted by the vision of a small, black grinning monkey. These visitations drive him to his death. His German doctor friend is convinced that it was the nocturnal draughts of green tea that had wrecked the gentle clergyman’s equilibrium and opened up his “inner eye” to these malicious hauntings.
By the 1870s, the shift to black tea was almost complete as a result of changes in trade and taste. The British were now growing tea in plantations in India and Ceylon. The huge imports of this cheap, black tea edged out the demand for green. With black tea sourced directly from British-run plantations, consumers were more likely to be assured of quality.
Of course, this villain of the Victorian sitting room has now had its reputation firmly restored — and then some. Science has shown that green tea is chock-full of antioxidants, and its consumption has been linked to health benefits like lower risk of stroke and of some kinds of cancer. A warm and aromatic drink that’s also good for you? I’ll drink to that.