Dr. Jane T. Merritt is an associate professor of history at Old Dominion University and author of the new book, The Trouble with Tea: The Politics of Consumption in the Eighteenth-Century Global Economy (Johns Hopkins, 2016).
Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.
The Trouble with Tea explores 18th century consumer culture, market economies, and their political use and meaning. The core of the book’s argument questions the old adage among economic historians that consumer demand drove merchants to provide an ever-increasing supply of goods, thus sparking a Consumer Revolution in the early eighteenth century. Tea presents a different picture. Instead, political concerns about the domination of Britain in a global economy and the corporate machinations of the English East India Company (EIC) in the 1720s and 1730s produced an over-supply of Chinese tea that the Company then funneled to North America, hoping to find a market. American consumers only slowly habituated themselves to the beverage, aided by the availability of Caribbean sugar. Still, American merchants and consumers took to tea by mid-century, even as colonial activists called for a boycott of British goods. Boston wasn’t the only place that held a “Tea Party” to protest imperial tax policy in late 1773. Citizens of Philadelphia, New York, Edenton, North Carolina, and Charleston also destroyed or forcibly returned the EIC tea commissioned for sale in North America. In truth, however, Americans did not reject luxury consumption or tea; they simply wanted quicker, easier access to foreign commercial markets, which they returned to soon after the American Revolution. Ironically, individual states and the new federal government established under the 1787 constitution revived taxes and tariffs on tea as a key source of revenue. Creating, then fulfilling consumer desires, has always been a driving force in the American economy.