NPR logo Rebel Brew: What The Boston Tea Party And The Mad Hatter Had In Common

Tea Tuesday

Rebel Brew: What The Boston Tea Party And The Mad Hatter Had In Common

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Minnie Phan for NPR
Minnie Phan for NPR
Minnie Phan for NPR

This week marks the 242nd anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Mad Hatter's tea party. On the surface, these two events seem to have very little in common. But if you'll follow us down the rabbit hole for a bit, you'll find some surprising links.

On Dec. 16, 1773, the Sons of Liberty in Boston, disguised as Mohawks, stole aboard three British ships and tipped 342 chests of good East India Co. tea into the harbor to protest England's unjust taxation policy. This dumping of tea leaves was the spark that accelerated the Revolutionary War, culminating in the rout of the redcoats and the triumph of red, white and blue.

The Mad Hatter's tea party has more idyllic roots. On a "golden afternoon" in 1862, a shy, young mathematics don named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson took the three daughters of his college dean on a boating expedition. Having rowed them up the river Isis, Dodgson, accompanied by fellow Oxford don Richard Duckworth, and the three Liddle girls (one of whom was Alice), disembarked at Godstow and took tea near a haystack. Dodgson entertained his young companions with a story of how an inquisitive and bossy but very likable little girl pops down a large rabbit hole, "never once considering how in the world she was to get out again."

Three years later, in 1865, an expanded and delightfully illustrated version of the story was published as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland under Dodgson's pseudonym, Lewis Carroll.

As luck would have it, the "golden afternoon" on which Carroll told the story fell on the Fourth of July, a detail he worked into the story. When the Mad Hatter asks Alice what day of the month it is, she promptly replies, "The fourth."

Not much tea gets drunk at either party. At Boston it ends up staining the Atlantic, and in Wonderland, Alice barely pours herself a cup when the Hatter decides everyone should change places.

But these two tea parties have something else in common: poking fun at the elaborate upper-class English ritual of evening tea. The Boston Tea Party was not called by that elegant name till the 1830s. Initially, it was known simply as "the Destruction of the Tea in Boston."

So how did it get its name? According to the historian Alfred F. Young in The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution, the name evolved to parody the colonial practice of high tea. Young quotes the first known American minstrel song, "Backside Albany," from 1815, which mocks a British general for fleeing the field, leaving behind "powder, ball, canon, tea-pot and kittle." In this context, the "Boston Tea Party" had a pleasant ironic ring to it.

The Victorian ceremony of high tea, where one was expected to be as clotted as cream, was what Carroll was sending up, too. There is a riot of rudeness at the Mad Hatter's tea party, from Alice sitting down uninvited, to elbows on the table, to the March Hare majestically offering Alice wine where there is no wine, and the Hatter making personal remarks such as, "Your hair wants cutting." Carroll upsets the genteel conventions as blithely as the March Hare upsets the milk jug. Instead of silly small talk, there is hilarious nonsense talk:

"Take some more tea," the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

"I've had nothing yet," Alice replied in an offended tone, "so I can't take more."

"You mean you can't take less," said the Hatter: "It's very easy to take more than nothing."

"Nobody asked your opinion," said Alice.

"Who's making personal remarks now?" the Hatter asked triumphantly.

What Carroll was not making fun of was the meal itself — he knew how much young children looked forward to the delicious snacks served at tea time. He often laid out a full tea with sticky buns, scones, cakes, and biscuits for the little girls he loved to photograph — sometimes in the nude, though his peculiar interest was largely viewed as innocent — and produced all kinds of mechanical toys and puzzles to keep them engaged. An eccentric host, he was known to walk around his rooms at Christ Church College, gently rocking the teapot for 10 minutes for the tea to brew properly. In his latter years, however, he turned on the beverage, calling it "an unwholesome drug."

Though Carroll never visited Boston, he had a unique connection with it in the form of an 1888 correspondence he carried on with the fourth-graders of the Girl's Latin School at Boston, who started a magazine called The Jabberwock, after the flaming-eyed monster in the sequel to Alice, Through the Looking-Glass. After once reprimanding them for an inappropriate joke in the magazine, Carroll offered a conciliatory tea metaphor in his next letter: "After the Black Draught of serious remonstrance which I ventured to send to you the other day, surely a Lump of Sugar will not be unacceptable?" He no doubt knew that for the little Bostonians, tea had a special significance.

The sepia ripples of the Boston Tea Party were felt across the world. In 1930, when Mahatma Gandhi — who was protesting the salt tax imposed by the British — was taking tea with the British viceroy, he mischievously added a pinch of salt to his cup as a reminder, he said, of "the famous Boston Tea Party."

More contemporary, of course, is the conservative Tea Party movement in America. Launched in 2009 to protest the government's stimulus package to bail out big banks, it traces its ideological roots back to that famous December dumping. At one gathering, a libertarian Tea Party member was spotted in a tricorn hat carrying a sign that read: "I Can Stimulate Myself" — a statement open to some rather risque interpretations.

Indeed, some might say that the choice of party name has proved unfortunate. As novelist Salman Rushdie joked, "If I were going to start a political movement, I would not call it a tea party; it makes one think of mad hatters running about."


Tea Tuesdays is an occasional series exploring the science, history, culture and economics of this ancient brewed beverage.

Nina Martyris is a freelance journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.

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