There were many reasons why a young man or woman might have turned to a life of crime and lewdness in eighteenth-century England. Heart-rending tales of orphaned children, abandoned lovers, destitution and failed ambitions fill the pages of contemporary memoirs, newspaper columns and court records. But for some, one of the prime suspects behind the nation’s idleness and vicious inclinations was quietly, steadily taking root in almost every street in the country. As it did, the nation as a whole risked become more and more debauched.
This terrible foreign invader encouraged young men to stay “a lurking in the bed” rather than earning an honest wage. It turned women to harlotry and insolence, caused atrocious child neglect, and was armed to carry everyone off to their grave a decade early. This enemy of virtue? Why, tea, of course.
Observing this apparent trend, philanthropist Jonas Hanway lamented that “Men seem to have lost their stature, and comliness; and women their beauty. Your very chambermaids have lost their bloom, I suppose by sipping tea.” But social reformer William Cobbett’s fevered rant about the moral and national implications of tea-drinking was even more vehement.
It must be evident to every one, that the practice of tea drinking must render the frame feeble and unfit to encounter hard labour or severe weather, while, as I have shown, it deducts from the means of replenishing the belly and covering the back. Hence succeeds a softness, an effeminacy, a seeking for the fireside, a lurking in the bed, and, in short, all the characteristics of idleness, for which, in this case, real want of strength furnishes an apology. The tea drinking fills the public house, makes the frequenting of it habitual, corrupts boys as soon as they are able to move from home, and does little less for the girls, to whom the gossip of the tea table is no bad preparatory school for the brothel… the girl that has been brought up merely to boil the tea kettle, and assist in the gossip inseparable from the practice, is a mere consumer of food, a pest to her employer, and a curse to her husband, if any man be so unfortunate as to fix his affections upon her.
In short, Cobbett viewed the plant “as a destroyer of health, an enfeebler of the frame, an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth and a maker of misery for old age.”
And the solution to this terrible moral poison? Every household brewing its own “good and wholesome Beer.” Obviously.