In the 18th century, English Canadians spoke little about tea. The colonists of New France preferred to drink coffee and chocolate, easily available from the French colonies in the Caribbean. Only after the British conquest was tea, originating both in India and in China, imported on a regular basis. The tea habit found success first among the bourgeoisie, where it was often consumed for its curative properties.
In 1806, 1500 pounds of black tea and 90 000 pounds of green tea were imported. The Canada Year Book states that in 1910, 33 178 366 pounds were imported, and that this figure grew to 40 655 939 pounds in 1916.
Tea became an essential element in the diet of the coureurs des bois, hunters, and lumberjacks. An energizing drink, it was welcome amidst the rigors of hard work under difficult conditions.
An analysis of the food purchases of workers on the Lachine Canal in the 1820s reveals that tea had become significant for all classes in society. Tea and sugar represent a healthy proportion of food purchases among the workers. During their 14-hour work days, tea sweetened with cane sugar was often their only hot meal and stimulant. It was an essential part of their diet, despite the fact that it remained relatively costly, even for the poorest quality teas.
Among the rich families in Montréal, tea and sugar were consumed daily. These families had access to a variety of better quality teas, poured in fine porcelain and served with silver accessories.
"Les anciens Canadiens détestaient le thé. Les dames en prenaient quelquefois, comme sudorifique, pendant leurs maladies, donnant une préférence, néanmoins, à une infusion de camommile. Lorsque la mère de l'auteur, élevée dans les villes où elle fréquentait la société anglaise, introduisit le thé dans la famille de son beau-père, après son mariage, il y a soixante-dix-huit ans, les vieillards se moquaient d'elle en disant qu'elle prenait cette drogue pour fair l'Anglaise et qu'elle ne devait y trouver aucun goût."
©1996: Centre d'histoire de Montréal
Picture source: Musée McCord d'histoire canadienne, archive Notman