Mike the Mad Biologist

Did Tea Drinking Lead to Urbanization?

While lots of people swear by the power of tea, I had no idea it was seriously viewed as a something that led to urbanization. From The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson (p. 94-95):

The dramatic increase of people to populate the new urban spaces of the Industrial Age may have had one other cause: tea. The population growth during the first half of the eighteenth century neatly coincided with the mass adoption of tea as the de facto national beverage. (Imports grew from six tons at the beginning of the century to eleven thousand at the end.) A luxury good at the start of the century, tea had become a staple even of working-class diets by the 1850s. One mechanic who provided an account of his weekly budget to the Penny Newsman spent almost fifteen percent of his earnings on tea and sugar. He may have been indulging in it for the taste and the salutary cognitive effects of caffeine, but it was also a healthy lifestyle choice, given the alternatives. Brewed tea possesses several crucial antibacterial properties that help ward off waterborne diseases: the tannic acid released in the steeping process kills off those bacteria that haven’t already perished during the boiling of the water. The explosion of tea drinking in the late 1700s was, from the bacteria’s point of view, a microbial holocaust. Physicians observed a dramatic drop in dysentery and child mortality during the period. (The antiseptic agents in tea could be passed on to infants through breast milk.) Largely freed from waterborne disease agents, the tea drinking population began to swell in number, ultimately supplying a larger labor pool to the emerging factory towns, and to the great sprawling monster of London itself.

I think it had more to do with the boiling water than the tannic acids, but it’s still interesting.

Comments

  1. #1 Andy
    July 23, 2007

    This seems like Prussian helmet thinking to me.
    To explain:

    In 1870, Prussia, a small country, defeated France, a major imperial power, in a matter of weeks, stunning the other European powers.
    The Prussian soldiers wore helmets with a point on top.
    The British Army concluded that French were defeated not by the Prussian’s superior weapons, tactics or training, but by the wearing of these pointy hats. Similar hats were developed for the British Army. A residual design survives as the traditional helmet of a British policeman.

    Ergo, perhaps the growth of towns and economic growth, introduction of clean water and sanitation during the nineteenth century, reduced waterborne diseases and caused an increase in prosperity that allowed working people to purchase tea, formerly a luxury item.

  2. #2 cuchulkhan
    July 23, 2007

    Alcohol was safer than water in those days too, maybe mass drunkenness caused urbanization.

  3. #3 cuchulkhan
    July 23, 2007

    Maybe they are confusing the causation. Tea came from India. The British ruled India. India provided Britain with a lot of stuff. That stuff sustained British industry. British industry caused industrialization and urbanization. Tea was just a nice little byproduct.

  4. #4 Sue
    July 23, 2007

    this is intresting.i love drinking tea from all over the world….fav tea vendor http://www.teacuppa.com and http://www.jingtea.com

  5. #5 Janne
    July 24, 2007

    Increase in tea drinking lead to an explosion of tea cultivation in India as well as other places. Tea leaves are dark green and grow densely, thus changing the albedo and heating up the climate. A balmier climate made for better growing conditions in chilly, rainy England, which lead to cheaper, more abundant food, which lead to better diets, longer life and better survival of infants, which lead to larger, denser population.

    I think – anybody want to spot me a research grant to confirm the theory?

  6. #6 BethL
    July 24, 2007

    Funny this should come up now. I heard something similar this weekend in a tour of an old house in Aachen, Germany. Apparently coffee and tea are credited with “making people more intelligent.” This is meant somewhat metaphorically: before coffee and tea became popular drinks, most people drank beer and wine. Lots of it. My guide on Sunday said that workers might drink 3-4 Liters per day. Imagine the kind of fog you’d wander around in! Water wasn’t very safe, as we know. So along came these hot drinks, people started cooking their water with tannic acids and drinking less alcohol – voilà, many health problems are suddenly on the mend.

    This is my own train of thought and I admit I have no solid proof for it right now, but consider the effects of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Today there are all sorts of warnings to mothers about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, but “back in the day” they didn’t have much choice: alcohol or watered down alcohol. Along comes tea, an alcohol-free drink with antiseptic agents, and I would expect it would lead to greater numbers of healthier births. (I say healthier because there were still many other dangers.)

    Looks like I’ll need to take a look at The Ghost Map then. :-) Thanks for the suggestion.

  7. #7 Stormcrow
    July 24, 2007

    BethL –

    If memory serves, The Ghost Map does take up alcohol consumption, though not by pregnant women. And it comes to pretty much those conclusions – i.e., it wasn’t healthy, but it was healthier. Meaning that, demographically speaking, the bacteria killed by the alcohol and the consequent drop in mortality from waterborne disease more than counterbalanced the numbers of wretches whose livers blew up and killed them by their late 40s to early 50s.

    Prior to the nineteenth century, making it to the advanced old age of 50 was, on average, not doing too badly.

    John Snow himself didn’t even live that long, and he was a “ardent teetotaler”, in the words of the relevant Wikipedia entry. As well as a man who boiled all of his drinking water.

    He died at age 45.

    So much for the “good old days”. Pfaugh.

  8. #8 Markk
    July 24, 2007

    “Increase in tea drinking lead to an explosion of tea cultivation in India as well as other places. Tea leaves are dark green and grow densely, thus changing the albedo and heating up the climate.”

    Heh, I’m assuming you are joking as another absurd example. This is a prime example of the BS used by anti-global warming people as a straw argument: If growing a few 100 square miles in tea can cause the climate to change, we sure don’t need to worry about CO2 as its effects will be lost in the haze. The amount of area covered by tea is miniscule, likely was forested or green before, and can have made essentially no effect on climate.

    Now the clean water thing I think might well be significant. If you have ever looked at old death statistics compared to sewage development it is astounding. Anything that hit those rates would be significant. I can’t remember the book that went into this, dang it…

  9. #9 Janne
    July 25, 2007

    Markk: I’m joking, of course; your reaction tells me I should have been evn more over the top though. Maybe if I’d added a secret alien invasion?

  10. #10 BostonTom
    July 25, 2007

    This seems very dubious to me. London’s population reached 600,000 around 1700, well before the advent of tea.

    Were bacterial diseases rife? Yes they were. In one really excellent demographic study by J. Landers, more than 3 in five children of London’s Quakers died before the age of five, and the death records for London show lots of losses to fever (and the Black Plague, of course, struck southern England hard in 1665-6.) Did such diseases have large scale demographic consequences? Yes they did — London’s death rate exceeded its birthrate throughout the 17th century, with population growth coming from rural/small town in-migration. But the blunt fact is that large scale urbanization proceeded in a disease rich environment, as folks chased economic opportunity (or were driven by rural economic shifts, i.e. loss of livelihood, which is not quite the same thing). Same thing happened later; tea consumption was almost certainly an epiphenomenon, not a major causal driver of the shift.

    The moral: beware of cute causality in history. It’s just one more kind of magical thinking.

  11. #11 Will
    July 25, 2007

    Relevant links:
    http://www.alanmacfarlane.com/tea/book.html

    http://www.alanmacfarlane.com/FILES/tea.htm

    “The economic and other effects of this rapid growth of tea on western civilization are incalculable. It clearly stimulated the trade to China. It led to the rapid development of English ceramics and altered social habits. It may also have had a profound effect on health. When tea was first introduced various doctors experimented with what was known to be a medicinal herb. They found that it seemed to contain strange properties that, for instance, delayed putrefaction in frog�s legs. Recently their research seems to have been confirmed in that the polyphenols in the tea, closely related to the antiseptic phenol used by Lister in 1867 to sterilize hospitals, may be a very important anti-bacterial agent. It has been argued that the dramatic fall in mortality in England starting in the 1740�s, which has been widely credited as being a necessary pre-condition for the urban and industrial revolutions, and which has hitherto never been explained, may have been one of the effects of the explosion of tea drinking.”

    http://www.chicagoboyz.net/archives/004339.html
    “Tea made life bearable. Tea made life safer. Tea drove science, industry, naval technology, and trade financing. Tea was a trigger of conflicts. Tea blessed the working class of the Anglosphere while encouraging the exploitation, by both indigenous and foreign powers, of ordinary folk picking the leaves. Macfarlane claims the medical and social impact of tea as one of the largest trade influences in human history. The safe daily rehydration of billions of people in the modern world is still indirectly dependent on the mild addiction of humans to tea-drinking. The tale of trade, warfare, economics, and industrialization surrounding tea cultivation has left a profound imprint on Asian history, and therefore on global history”.

  12. #12 KipEsquire
    July 25, 2007

    The fascinating book “A History of the World in Six Glasses” by Tom Standage also discusses the role tea played in the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire.

    (Incidentally, pre-modern cultures also experienced tremendous health benefits from discovering fermentation of malt and other grains — i.e., proto-beers. They realized very quickly that, oftentimes, water=sick but brewed=okay.)

  13. #13 DuWayne
    July 25, 2007

    cuchulkhan -

    Alcohol was safer than water in those days too, maybe mass drunkenness caused urbanization.

    I have actually heard the argument, from folks who take their beer very serious (i.e. home brewing, spending up to $30 for a good Belgian) that it was alcohol, specifically beer, that really fueled urbanization. They in turn had read it in various publications about beer.

  14. #14 Bob Layson
    July 26, 2007

    Small beer, a weak somewhat fizzy beer, was widely drunk in the past in lieu of the somewhat suspect water otherwise available. Queen Elizabeth the First used to drink it at breakfast.

  15. #15 DBH
    July 26, 2007

    And lets not forget mead, or honey wine, also cheap, easy, and mildly alcoholic. Lets not forget the origins of the expression “gardy loo”…

  16. #16 Bon Johnston
    July 26, 2007

    Nice theory. Except… “urbanization” isn’t an invention of the 18th century. Or are the urban centers of ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, India, China, and Asia Minor not “cities” for the purpose of this discussion?

    While their total populations might not have equalled that of 18th century London, if you look at population density for many ancient cities (i.e. the number of people crammed into a given area), it wasn’t that different.

    Also, what about places where drinking tea was already commonplace? If tea is really *the* factor that allows for urbanization, then all the cities in China, where tea was widely consumed pre-1800, should show this same pattern of “urbanization” way before London does.

    I’m not saying that tea couldn’t have made city life a lot easier by reducing the incidence and spread of diseases; in fact, I’m inclined to agree with that statement. We’ve incorporated a lot of disease-combatting substances into our diet: onions, garlic, turmeric, certain mushrooms, etc.

    But if you’re going to make a historical argument, you probably ought to look at more than just the last couple of centuries.

    Bon

  17. #17 Gold Rush history buff
    July 27, 2007

    Greetings from California. It’s commonly known that Chinese laborers were more productive in building American railroads in the West than Caucasian laborers. One reason, other than being forced to do the more dangerous jobs, is that they drank tea and suffered fewer water-borne ailments. (Probably also drank less alcohol)

  18. #18 sharon
    July 27, 2007

    I’ll add to the point: London’s population was always expanding rapidly, certainly from the 16th century. And the introduction of tea in the 18th century did not do much to its equally phenomenal fatality rates. London’s growth throughout the early modern period was largely the result of immigration.

  19. #19 hoary puccoon
    July 27, 2007

    Just because people didn’t have tea didn’t mean they weren’t drinking boiled drinks– tisanes and infusions of camomile, linden blossom, and so on. This is a better example of how hard it is to pin down cause and effect in social science research than it is a scholarly argument.

  20. It can certainly be entertaining to examine the proximate input cause of a particular outcome event. Perhaps tea influenced some Industrial Age cities. It’s an intriguing thought.

    I hope we don’t lose sight of the forest as we examine the tea tree, though. To answer the title question: It seems to me that urbanization is a process set in motion some 10,000 years ago. If I recall correctly its anthropological meaning, it was agriculture that was the discontinuity that allowed concentration of human population. It seems to me the history of urbanization is the history of our culture, the history of an agri- culture.

    At any rate, in the sprawling cities of the southeastern US, tea means southern sweet tea, saturated with sugar and served over ice.

    But while we’re sipping our tea, hot or iced, let’s give some thought to the longer term cultural process that got us here, with 6.6 billion humans, a staggering portion of other species dwindling toward extinction, and our life supporting ecosystems pushed toward instability. I hope we can give that some thought, too, as we enjoy our favorite beverages.

  21. #21 SmellyTerror
    July 28, 2007

    C’mon guys, don’t read too much into things in your eagerness to criticise. It says that dramatic urbanisation “…may have had one other cause: tea”.

    That’s one other cause in a list of who-knows-what-else, and it’s only “may have”. And we’re not talking about urbanisation in general, but dramatic urbanisation.

    It’s a slightly interesting point, not the communist-bloody-manifesto.

  22. #22 sm
    July 28, 2007

    Smelly Terror,

    The commenters here are impatient, no doubt, because they’ve seen this before == the single cause explanation for a complex phenomenon. What about coals from Newcastle? What about “ghost acres” in Africa and the New World? What about domination of the slave trade? This is no better than a passing thought and people will be impatient if the qualifications quickly fall away.

    Also known as the “I’m an expert in an obscure disease and sure enough I’ve discovered that the Black Death was *really* my obscure disease.”

  23. #23 SmellyTerror
    July 29, 2007

    Crazy, when the real reason for urbanisation was fear of werewolves.

  24. #24 Tercme
    January 7, 2008

    Alcohol was safer than water in those days too, maybe mass drunkenness caused urbanization..

  25. #25 arkada?l?k
    November 24, 2008

    thanks

  26. #26 ilan
    March 8, 2009

    I have actually heard the argument, from folks who take their beer very serious (i.e. home brewing, spending up to $30 for a good Belgian) that it was alcohol, specifically beer, that really fueled urbanization. They in turn had read it in various publications about beer.

  27. #27 mirc
    April 1, 2009

    thanks..

  28. #28 escort ilan
    January 1, 2010

    Just because people didn’t have tea didn’t mean they weren’t drinking boiled drinks– tisanes and infusions of camomile, linden blossom, and so on. This is a better example of how hard it is to pin down cause and effect in social science research than it is a scholarly argument.

  29. #29 tercüme
    April 29, 2010

    Frequent tea drinking can satisfy our needs of vitamins, which we lose during the daily course of our activities..