Sir Thomas Lipton And His Empire Of Tea In A Full Cup, writer Michael D'Antonio traces Thomas Lipton's rise from the slums of Glasgow, Scotland, to the High Courts of Tea — and how he never forgot where he came from.

Sir Thomas Lipton And His Empire Of Tea

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Just as the Civil War was coming to an end, a young Scottish journeyman from Glasgow arrived on a ship to New York. His name was Tommy Lipton. And when he came to America, he was like thousands of other recent arrivals, penniless and anonymous. And in New York...

Mr. MICHAEL D'ANTONIO (Author, "A Full Cup: Sir Thomas Lipton's Extraordinary Life and His Quest for the America's Cup"): (Reading) Lipton found a busy street lined with cheap hotels, cheaper flophouses and saloons catering to sailors and other transients.

Polls hung with dozens of telegraph wires marched down the avenues and cross-streets, casting shadows and cross-hatching the sky. The air smelled of rotting garbage, horse manure and the acrid smoke from the tall chimneys of a big soap factory that occupied several buildings a block away.

RAZ: That's Michael D'Antonio, reading from his new biography of Tommy Lipton. The young Glaswegian would spend five years in America doing odd jobs and taking mental notes before returning to Scotland to found his tea empire: Lipton Teas.

Michael D'Antonio's book is called "A Full Cup," and he joins me from our studios in New York.


Mr. D'ANTONIO: Great to be with you.

RAZ: Now, before we get to how Tommy Lipton would become Thomas J. Lipton, one of the most famous tea merchants in history, let's start with that trip to America. It's 1864. He's 17 years old, and he comes to America. What did he what was he looking to do? What was he looking to find out?

Mr. D'ANTONIO: He came to see that in someone like P.T. Barnum, in the men who brought cows and horses and set up a rodeo in what is now Harlem, in A.T. Stewart, who was the great merchant of the time, these examples of people who could get an idea, piece things together and present it to the world for profit or loss and take great big risks.

RAZ: Now, we should mention that Lipton's family had a small grocery shop back in Glasgow. When Tommy Lipton was in the U.S., what was he learning about the way Americans ran businesses?

Mr. D'ANTONIO: He learned that it was far better to scrub up your little store and light it brightly and display your goods with some flare than to try to hide the flaws in your merchandise and pass it off as first-rate goods.

And oddly enough, that was the style of retailing in Glasgow at the time when he started out for America. Most of the shops where people bought food had a dismal variety.

You know, you'd go in and there'd be a shipment of three dozen eggs for that morning, and when the eggs were gone, the eggs were gone. And if you went to a disreputable grocer, he would give you something leftover from the day before that might be spoiled and you wouldn't discover it until you got home.

And in America, he found these places where the offerings were varied but also well-lit. People actually enjoyed shopping. It wasn't considered a terrible chore, and you didn't have to fight with the merchant over the price and the quality of the goods.

RAZ: After five years in the U.S., Lipton returns to Glasgow, to his home, in 1870. A year later, he opens the first branch of Lipton's Market, and it becomes a huge success, like almost overnight. What made it different?

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Well, for one thing, Lipton had fun. This was a guy who put concave and convex mirrors outside the store so you could look at yourself as a fat man and a skinny man. In the morning, you might follow a parade of pigs that he had arranged.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: You wrote that sometimes he hired a dozen overweight men and then a dozen very, very thin men on opposite sides of the street. They would march down holding placards, one side saying, going to Lipton, the other side, they were holding signs saying, coming from Lipton's.

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Oh, absolutely. It was a good thing to be kind of rotund back then. It meant you were a person of wealth, and you were well-fed. And so it was a combination of the quality of the goods and the lighting.

Now, this is a funny thing to think about. It gets dark very early in the day in the winters in Glasgow.

RAZ: Yeah. Right. And anybody who's been there knows that at 2 o'clock, it's dusk.

Mr. D'ANTONIO: And he was a fellow who decided to spend money on gas. So he had many, many light fixtures installed in his store. You could turn the corner and look down the street, and the only thing you might really notice is Lipton's shop.

RAZ: Wow. Of course, he expands. He sees he becomes a fairly wealthy man. That's when he decides to get into tea. I read you write that sort of around the 1880s, the average Briton was drinking 35 gallons, gallons, of tea a year. Why did he decide to get into tea if he was already successful in the food business?

Mr. D'ANTONIO: In the 1870s and 1880s, tea was a very unreliable product. You could go into a market and have your tea measured out and get home and discover that half of it is spoiled. It would have a terrible taste.

They actually recycled tea. There were scavengers who would go by cafes and restaurants and hotels in the afternoons and collect the used tea from the morning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: And then resell it?

Mr. D'ANTONIO: And then resell it.

RAZ: Right.

Mr. D'ANTONIO: They might mix it with some fresh leaves. Lipton saw here also that there was a monopoly in a place called Mincing Lane wonderful name. Mincing Lane was really the middleman for all the tea sold in Great Britain. He decided that he could match Mincing Lane and he could beat them, and he did.

He really developed the first consistent brand of tea that was the same from package to package, from location to location, every time you bought it. And he priced it at half the price of other manufacturers. And so it was a runaway hit.

RAZ: The other side of your book, it has an entirely separate side, which is really about Lipton's celebrity. He was sort of, I guess, a kind of a Richard Branson meets Larry Ellison of the early 20th century.

After he becomes famous, rich, successful, he's knighted and so on, he decides to enter probably the most prestigious sailing competition, the America's Cup, for the first time in 1899. He does it five more times. First of all, why did he decide to do this?

Mr. D'ANTONIO: This is something that today escapes most of us, but in 1899, it wasn't the World Series that people followed. People waited for these great yachting competitions because they were not only sporting events, but they were contests of technology.

It was literally America and America's science, America's engineering, America's industry, versus Great Britain.

RAZ: He competed, what, about five times between 1899 and 1930?

Mr. D'ANTONIO: Five times. Each time, he lost. Each time, he won more love and more affection from the American public. And I think it was because he represented every immigrant who ever came to America, every poor boy who ever wanted to make it.

He came from tougher beginnings than we can even imagine today. He grew up in a slum that Friedrich Engels called the worst industrial neighborhood in the world.

Uneducated, he came to America, learned how to become someone else, went back to Great Britain and did it and had such style, had such grace and humor that the Americans loved him.

So he was the guy standing up for every Irishmen and every Scot and eventually every Italian and every Jew who ever came and tried to make it in a tough place. So every time he lost, he actually won.

RAZ: That's Michael D'Antonio, author of "A Full Cup: Sir Thomas Lipton's Extraordinary Life and His Quest for the America's Cup."

Michael, thank you so much.

Mr. D'ANTONIO: My pleasure.

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