Folks, it’s HOT outside. Unless you’re lucky enough to be somewhere with lots of shade or a breeze, five minutes outdoors will put you sorely in need of a fan and a cool beverage. Iced tea is a favorite choice, of course – there’s no telling how many millions of gallons of it Floridans and visitors run through every year. Just the thought of all that refreshment brings to mind some important questions. How long has tea been consumed in Florida? And when did we make the (brilliant) decision to start drinking it ice-cold instead of warm? We turned to the resources of the State Library & Archives of Florida to get some answers, and here’s what we found:
First off, Europeans didn’t bring the concept of brewing tea to Florida. Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, a member of the short-lived French colony at Fort Caroline, created a series of sketches depicting the activities and rituals of the Native Americans he encountered during the 16th century. At least one of these sketches depicts the “black drink” ceremony practiced by a number of Native Americans in the Southeast. This ritual involved brewing and consuming a drink made from the leaves of the yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria). The participants often vomited the tea afterward – hence the name Ilex vomitoria for the plant itself – but the natives believed this to be a way of purifying the mind and body.
Europeans weren’t too keen on the black drink ceremony, but there were other herbal concoctions they liked and copied. A Spanish physician named Nicolás Monardes, for instance, wrote extensively of the Sassafras plant, whose roots were frequently made into a tea. Sassafras tea was believed to cure a wide variety of ailments from fevers to constipation to lameness. As Europeans were gradually introduced to green and black teas from Asia, these products began showing up in shipments of goods traded at Pensacola and St. Augustine.
When Florida became a United States possession in 1821, coffee seems to have been much more popular than tea among the earliest American settlers. The State Archives of Florida holds several ledgers from Floridian general stores dating back to the 1820s, which are very useful for understanding what our forbears were buying and selling at various times. Coffee far outranked tea in popularity in the 1820s, probably because of expense, but there’s still plenty of evidence for tea consumption. Local Tallahasseans were buying teacups, saucers, teapots, and tea itself, as this page from the ledger of merchant Miles Blake shows (click/tap the image to enlarge it):
The medicinal value of tea was appreciated right on through the 19th century. In the 1840s, Gadsden County physician John M.W. Davidson recorded a recipe for “beef tea” in his journal. This concoction, more of a broth than a tea, appears to have been intended for patients who had trouble eating solid foods for one reason or another. Click on the page image for a transcription of the recipe.
By the middle of the 19th century, tea consumption was becoming more popular throughout the United States. Some businessmen wondered if perhaps Asian tea plants would grow in Florida. In 1867, the Florida Tea Company published a prospectus proposing to grow tea plants on a plantation in Madison County in North Florida. The organizers claimed the enterprise would yield as much as a quarter million pounds of tea per year. It does not appear that this grand experiment was ever tried, no doubt in part because of the dire economic conditions experienced across Florida following the Civil War. Newspapers did, however, continue to report on small-scale experimental tea plots in various parts of the state.
By the twentieth century, tea was much more affordable, and could be enjoyed both as a refreshing drink and as an excuse to be social. Many of Florida’s famous hotels featured elegant tea gardens, and tea parties were a favorite venue for meeting friends, neighbors, or colleagues. Even the younger set made a habit of sitting down to tea now and then.
As for when iced tea came into vogue, that’s a tricky question. Recipes for iced tea began showing up in print around the 1870s, but the drink didn’t really take off until it was introduced at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904. Hotels offered it on their menus to refresh thirsty guests who had just come in from a day’s activities. Railroad stations often sold the drink as well. It’s not hard to imagine why it caught on especially well in the South. Iced tea offered the flavor and fulfillment of a traditional beverage with the added pleasure of refreshing coolness.
So – next time you pour yourself a glass of iced tea or make a cup of hot tea (perhaps when the weather cools down a bit), remember that you’re partaking in a long-standing tradition in Florida’s history, one that has taken many forms over the years. Bottoms up!