#MyrtleMondays: Coffee, Tea, or Chocolate? Hot drinks in the Victorian Era

Brrrr! What’s happening with the weather lately? Here in the heart of the Midwest, we’ve gone from hints of glorious spring back to discontented winter in one fell swoop. It’s the perfect time to cozy up with a good book and a warm beverage.

In Cold-Blooded Myrtle (Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries #3), Myrtle and her team work on their case at a local coffee house, and fans will recall that hot cocoa has likewise fueled many of her Investigations. We tend to think of tea being the quintessential drink of Victorian England, but in fact coffee and hot chocolate had quite the ardent following, as well. Let’s take a look at how our favorite morning pick-me-up, after-sledding treat, and soothing mystery companions came to be.

18th century botanical illustration of Camellia sinensis, the tea plant (Source)

None of the three beverages is native to England. The plants they’re made from are all part of Britain’s heritage of colonial expansion and empire, and they’re still grown in the tropical plantations established centuries ago.

In his landmark 1850s study of the English working class, Henry Mayhew featured the London Coffee Seller. Read more: London Labor & the London Poor

The first of the hot drinks to gain a fandom in England was coffee. Coffee beans were first imported to Europe during the Renaissance (1500s), arriving via trade routes from the Middle East. It gained a foothold in Turkey, hopped aboard a vessel to the Netherlands, and from there made its way to England. By the 17th and 18th centuries, it was the fashionable drink for European statesmen, journalists, philosophers, businessmen, and activists who gathered at coffee houses to sip the stimulating drink and debate the hot issues of the day.

Interior of a London Coffeehouse, circa 1805. Note the all-male clientele. Coffeehouses were the progenitors of 19th century gentlemen’s clubs, catering to particular professions or political persuasions.

By the late 1900s, coffee was well-established, and readily available not just at street vendors but on local shop shelves.

Advert for American brand Lion Coffee, circa 1880

Coffee may have been first on the scene, but hot chocolate wasn’t far behind. A mere five years after London’s first coffeehouse opened, the first Chocolate House followed in 1657. A much less populist drink, hot chocolate began as an indulgence only available to the well-to-do. Chocolate ran around the equivalent of $65 a pound in today’s US money!

18th century French artist Jean-Etienne Liotard immortalized the beloved drink in La Belle Chocolatiere (c. 1745). Known as “The Chocolate Girl” in English.

And yet it gained an eager following nonetheless. It took some time to refine the flavors of the bitter bean (which was often combined with chilis in its native Mexico–and if you’ve never tried that, I can highly recommend it!) into the smooth, sweet beverage we enjoy today.

Our expert on everything, Mrs. Beeton offers this recipe for the perfect cup of cocoa:

1890s ad for familiar British chocolatier, Cadbury’s

By the 1910s, chocolate was ubiquitous enough that Hershey felt confident making this… somewhat dubious claim.

But what about tea, you ask? It immigrated to England in 1662 with King Charles II’s Portuguese wife, Catherine de Braganza. Just as today, anything to do with the royal family was apt to become a fad, and so too with tea.

In his Afternoon Tea (c. 1900) George Goodwin Killburne romanticizes tea’s early days in English drawing rooms.

By 1800, tea was far and away Britons’ favorite drink, and that explosive popularity spurred an international cultural revolution. Importing tea from its native China was expensive, and the ever-rising taxes charged on it annoyed Britain’s subjects (most notably some disgruntled North American colonists). Not to worry—handy British Colonial Ingenuity to the rescue. With the help of a little Scottish industrial espionage and the felicitous climate of Britain’s colonies in India, a new (inter)national industry was born.

This 1893 advert in Illustrated London News proudly proclaims Lipton’s Tea’s colonial Indian origins.

Suddenly, the price of tea plummeted, making it affordable by all classes. In contrast, coffee remained a costly import—et voila (as Miss Judson might say), England became a nation of tea-drinkers. Tea’s work as stimulant helped fuel the Industrial Revolution and ensured ready access to clean (boiled) drinking water. But what really made the beloved brew take off?

Although tea was drunk by everyone, it was as much its role as a feminine, domestic ritual that made it truly the national drink of Britons around the world. Where once men had gathered around the steaming cups of London coffeehouses, now women joined together to bond over a cuppa—and to discuss their own hotbutton issues. Coffee kept its earlier association as something drunk outside the home. Afternoon tea and tea parties were women’s spaces, where they could figuratively let their hair down and literally loosen up—a whole style of dress evolved for entertaining at home without having to wear a corset. The widespread consumption of tea, like so many other parts of modern consumer culture, was driven in large part by women.

These circa 1900 women have everything well in hand. You’re welcome.

None of these products made their way to Britain—or back to America—without considerable cost, not only financial, but social, political, and environmental. And these costs have serious repercussions even today. For more reading on the complex history of our favorite warm beverages, check out the following:

A Brief History of Chocolate: Smithisonian.org

When Sipping Tea Was Socially Ruinous: Atlas Obscura

Slavery & Specialty: Discussing Coffee’s Black History: Perfect Daily Grind

It wouldn’t be a #MyrtleMondays post if I didn’t slip in a cat advert somewhere! While for much of the 20th century, chocolate was regarded as junk food (albeit a treasured one) for its high fat and sugar content, recent research affirms that cacao’s natural nutrients are heart healthy.

So what’s in your kettle? Me? Although I learned to make a proper cup of tea in England back in high school, these days I’m strictly Team Coffee.