Thursday, March 29, 2018

American Tea History: Who Sipped Iced Tea First?

It's time for more tea history! This weekend we're jetting off to Charleston for spring break, and I imagine we'll be inundated by sweet tea. When I think about iced tea in America, Southern 'sweet tea' immediately comes to mind. I'm not a huge fan of sweet tea myself, but it got me wondering about the history of iced tea in the US so I did a little bit of research and found a few interesting tidbits. It seems iced tea may not have been invented in the south, but let's look at some of the evidence...

Iced Tea Ad from Good Housekeeping Magazine, July 1939

Most people assume iced tea originated in the south, since it's such a common sight there. But if you think about it, you can't have iced tea Southerners didn't have easy access to ice until the invention of the ice box. Northerners were able to cut ice from frozen ponds and lakes and keep it through the winter months and beyond due to the weather and a bit of clever insulation. Knowing this, it may not surprise you to realize iced tea most likely originated in the north.

Ice harvesting on a frozen pond
Recipes for making cold tea at home started popping up in British and American cookbooks in the early to mid 19th century. These cookbooks generally called for green tea, a whole lotta sugar...and booze. These delicious sounding recipes were for tea punches, and really, can't we bring these back? I actually had delightful tea punches when I was in London (they had much better ingredients and much less sugar), and I've been meaning to perfect a recipe I've been kicking around in my head for a bit. But back to the iced tea history...

One of the first recipes using cold tea can be seen in the Kentucky Housewife cookbook from 1839 for tea punch.

Excerpt from The Kentucky Housewife by Mrs. Lettice Bryanon

Mentions of iced tea appeared throughout the 1800s but it seems that it really took off around 1868. From an article from Serious Eats:
...1868 was iced tea's breakout year. On July 6 of that summer, the Boston Journal declared, "During the heated term there is nothing so invigorating as iced tea. A slice of lemon no thicker than a wafer placed in each tumbler adds to the relish." The New-York Commercial Advertiser ran the same notice verbatim just five days later, and the Springfield Republican followed suit three days after.
It makes sense that if iced tea gained popularity first in the north, the sweetened version was also developed there. From the same article:
From the very beginning, sweetening iced tea was a common practice, but it was left to the consumer's discretion. Lemon juice was mentioned more often than sugar in the early notices, but the New York Tribune did advise, on July 27, 1868: "Sweeten the hot tea to suit your taste; then pour it, spoonful by spoonful, into a tumbler filled with ice." A few years later, the Vinton Record of McArthur, Ohio, said that iced tea "is made by permitting tea to cool, pouring it over powdered ice, and sweetening it with white sugar, to suit the taste."
Iced tea was more of a treat in those days, since ice was difficult to come by and sugar was more expensive. But with the aforementioned invention of the icebox, lowering prices in sugar, and black tea becoming cheaper as the British controlled the black tea industry in India and Ceylon, iced tea became more readily available. Black tea became the leaf of choice as it was generally less expensive than green tea. Even later during WWII it became more difficult to find green tea, so black tea became the fashionable choice to serve iced.

In my research many resources mention the 1928 cookbook Southern Cooking by Henrietta Dull as publishing the recipe that became the definitive way to make iced tea. 
“TEA – Freshly brewed tea, after three to five minutes’ infusion, is essential if a good quality is desired. The water, as for coffee, should be freshly boiled and poured over the tea for this short time . . . The tea leaves may be removed when the desired strength is obtained . . . Tea, when it is to be iced, should be made much stronger, to allow for the ice used in chilling. A medium strength tea is usually liked. A good blend and grade of black tea is most popular for iced tea, while green and black are used for hot . . . To sweeten tea for an iced drink-less sugar is required if put in while tea is hot, but often too much is made and sweetened, so in the end there is more often a waste than saving . . . Iced tea should be served with or without lemon, with a sprig of mint, a strawberry, a cherry, a slice of orange, or pineapple. This may be fresh or canned fruit. Milk is not used in iced tea.”
Roasted green iced tea that I made awhile back, unsweetened

It's hard to say exactly who had iced tea first, especially sweet tea. The recipes I've come across are all southern even though it makes sense that the iced element would have been more of a northern creation. As far as southern 'sweet tea' is concerned, some articles say the invention of the iced tea spoon is proof tea wasn't always presweetened, but stirred in later (if you're not sure what an iced tea spoon looks like, check out the link here). But, when was Southern iced tea referred to as 'sweet tea'? Sure, tea had the option of having sugar added, but the phrase 'sweet tea' appears to be a recent phenomenon! This surprised me, as I often think of women in big poofy dresses sitting on large Southern verandas sipping their 'sweet tea'. Once again, from that helpful Serious Eats article:
If you find the phrase "sweet tea" in a newspaper (even a Southern newspaper) from the 1960s or 1970s, it's almost always referring to hot tea enjoyed in some faraway place, like Egypt, Dubai, or Sri Lanka.
That started to change in the last years of the 20th century. In 1989, Kathy Petty, a columnist for the Augusta Chronicle in Augusta, Georgia, joked that "getting a glass of sweet iced tea above the Mason–Dixon line is about as likely as finding a reactor pipe at SRP without a crack in it." ("SRP" refers to the Savannah River Plant, a nuclear facility near Augusta that was famously plagued by defects.) By the 1990s, people were becoming quite emphatic about the linkage. "Southern ice tea is always very sweet," a writer for Alabama's Anniston Star declared in 1994. "It's not Southern tea (and in the South isn't worth much) if it doesn't have a lot of sugar added to it way in advance."
So what do you think? If you grew up in the South before the 1980s, do you remember hearing the term 'sweet tea'? Did you sweeten your tea to taste, or have it served already sweetened? I'd love to get your feedback! When I'm down South next week, I'll see if I can do a bit more research.

For more posts on tea history, check out my articles such as Who Had The First Sip, Tea and Women's Suffrage, and A Bit of NYC Tea History.


  1. Interesting finds, Sara!
    I think you'd The Frozen Water Trade by Gavin Weightman, if you haven't read it. When I lived in Boston this was one of the books I read about New England history.