World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Erika Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017. Pp. xvi + 549. Bibliography and index. $39.50 (cloth).


     The commodity history, a genre featuring particular foods that supposedly changed the world, has become something of a commodity in its own right: superficial, standardized, and disposable. As the publishing industry churns out ever more such titles, Erika Rappaport's world history of tea comes as a welcome return to an artisanal mode of academic production: painstakingly researched, artfully narrated, and beautifully illustrated. Drawing deeply on the historiographies of empire and consumption, she extends these fields with a wealth of primary source material from private, national, and imperial tea marketing ventures. Rappaport masterfully combines gender, commodity, and food studies analysis to reveal the intricate networks and conflicting interests that made tea the lifeblood of the British empire.

     The book spans a broad chronology, from the introduction of tea to England in the mid-seventeenth century to the decline of its popularity, and of the empire itself, after World War II. The first section, "Anxious Relations," examines the subversive foundations of tea's empire through the influence of Chinese culture on elite tastes and the role of smugglers in making the drink available to the wider British society. The second and weightiest section, "Imperial Tastes," describes how a Planter Raj seized control of supply chains from the Chinese and taught Britons and colonials to drink "empire tea." A shorter final section, "Aftertastes," describes the nationalization of tea in former colonies and the drink's eclipse among young Brits, who took to coffee along with rock music and rebellion. Throughout, Rappaport gives careful attention to the ups and downs of commodity markets, for example, showing that British tea consumption dipped in the early nineteenth century with the villainization of China only to rise again with the surge of the temperance movement. She also describes the limits of marketing, particularly in the United States, where in a moment worthy of the TV show Mad Men, advertisers sought out psychologists to explain why so many Americans detested tea as a "sissy" drink.

     The gendering of tea was crucial to both its symbolic meanings and its material production, as Rappaport clearly demonstrates. Although earlier scholars have described the emergence of tea culture as a domestic counterpart to the coffee that was consumed in the early modern public sphere, Rappaport documents the active role of women in establishing tea's commodity chain, whether as stockholders in the East India Company or as retailers involved in blending and marketing tea. She also shows how diverse interests used gendered imagery to promote their agenda, whether by opponents of the China trade decrying the supposed foreign penetration of British women or by a Planter Raj in India justifying their own brutal actions by questioning the natives' masculinity. Notwithstanding attempts to draw sharp gendered distinctions, social spaces were often hybrid blends, such as the temperance movement, where genders and classes mixed in the construction of a sober consumer culture.

     Rappaport gives rich historical texture to the complex commodity networks theorized by geographers and rural sociologists. In contrast to the linear movement of goods from the global south to north described by Sidney Mintz is his landmark study of sugar, she describes the struggles for market share between diverse companies, empires, colonies, and nations. She argues further that mass markets for tea among the British working classes and colonial subjects often developed not as an explicit goal of leading merchants such as the East India Company and the Planter Raj but rather as a way of disposing of surpluses resulting from illicit or unintended supplies from early modern smuggling (admittedly a blurry category), nineteenth-century adulteration, and twentieth-century market saturation. Rappaport recounts the marketing coalitions and advertising strategies that emerged as colonial and later national producers in India and Ceylon pooled their resources to gain market share in competition with rival producers and with firms such as Lipton and Twining. Some advertising campaigns, such as the Disneyesque Mr. T. Pott, gained global recognition, but more often marketing succeeded by carefully tailoring an image to particular market segments, as in the differing ads produced for Afrikaner and Bantu consumers in South Africa.

     Readers of World History Connected may find the book's greatest novelty in Rappaport's use of food studies methodologies to analyze taste as both a social construction and a sensory experience. For example, she attributes the appeal of temperance for the working classes largely to the gastronomic spectacles of the tea party, with its Rabelaisian offerings of sugar, bread, and cake. By contrast, a major challenge for the Planter Raj in the middle of the nineteenth century was convincing Britons to accept black tea from India when it tasted so different from the green Chinese tea that they had grown accustomed to drinking. Patriotic appeals to empire products provided a natural marketing strategy, but not a sufficient one, according to Rappaport. At a more visceral level, marketers sought to associate the taste of Chinese tea with contamination, a claim that built on fears of cholera haunting the popular imagination, although boiling water to make tea would of course eliminate the danger. Ultimately, the shift in taste seems to have been largely a generational change, as empire tea finally gained wide acceptance in the final decade of the century. The transition to empire tea also entailed changing sites of tea blending. Formerly, this task had been carried out by individual merchants, who sorted through bins of "woody," "dusty," "very dusty," and "odd smell[ing]" tea to produce their particular blends (150), but large firms increasingly hired professionals to carry out this task of translating sensory taste into brand and value.

     As Rappaport clearly shows, the consumer culture and the commercial empire of tea emerged from the competition between diverse interests and ideologies. In contending for market share, rival entrepreneurs, companies, colonies, and nations sought not only to control commodity chains but also to assert civilizational claims for the power of tea to transform consumers, workers, and societies. By unraveling these complex histories, A Thirst for Empire helps to clarify our understanding of the rise of global capitalism.

Jeffrey M. Pilcher is a Professor of History and Food Studies at the University of Toronto and editor of the journal Global Food History. He can be contacted at


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2018 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use