Twinings15 minute read

The small flagship store of Twinings at 216 Strand of London is often overseen by its surrounding, tall and modern buildings. However, originally founded by Thomas Twinings in 1706 as a coffee house, this small tea house has a history of over 300 years. In fact, the history of Twinings is deeply rooted in the Imperial era, and the tea house played a major role in expanding tea in Britain as a culture as well as an identity. Taking a cultural perspective in looking at the history of Twinings, the essay will analyse this long-established tea house as an imperial artifact of London. The first section of the essay will analyse the conflicts over tea that encouraged the emotional sense of ‘otherness’ and commonness through the shared culture of tea, and also supported the establishment of tea as a symbol of the British identity. The second section will explore the development of tea as symbolism of the British identity by associating values promoted by the British Empire, or what it is called ‘middle class decency’ in this essay. The final section will examine advertisements by Twinings in contrast to photographs of the producers in China to explore the ways in which Twinings expanded the association of the imagery of middle class decency with Britishness by deliberately ignoring the foreignness of the production side. Through the three sections, the essay will critique Twinings as a contributing factor in establishing tea as an identity and culture of the British Empire, strongly associated with the imagery of middle class decency.

Figure one Twinings and Limited Company (2017) Twinings entrance
Figure 1: Twinings and Limited Company (2017) Twinings entrance

This section will first examine multiple conflicts over tea that Twinings and the British Empire were involved in, to argue the importance of such conflicts in shaping a sense of otherness and national identity, leading to the development of tea as a cultural practice and a common national identity. The tea industry was constantly involved in conflicts with the colonies, in which Twinings contributed as a leading tea house in London. Conflicts around tea begun when Golden Lyon, the former Twinings, was first established in 1707, as high taxations were imposed to tea compared to coffee, which were popular at the time. Richard Twinings, who took after the Shop after his grandfather Thomas, played an important role in lobbying the British government to pass the Commutation Act in 1784, which drastically reduced tea taxes from 119% to 12.5% (Lindfield and Margrave, 2015). However, this allowed the East India Company to sell their oversupplied tea to the British colonies through the Tea Act of 1773 which stated that the colonies could only buy the heavily taxed tea from Britain. This oppressive measures taken by the British government led to the infamous Boston Tea Party in 1773 (Lindfield and Margrave, 2015). Conflicts also erupted with China, which was the first supplier of tea for the British Empire, and also a historically important producer for Twinings as represented through the two Chinese male figures at the entrance of the shop (See Figure 1). Although tea trade with China was originally under the Chinese control in the 18th century, through the Angelo-Chinese wars from 1839 to ‘42 and ‘56 to ‘60, China became debilitate and was forced to open its borders to the West (Lindfield and Margrave, 2015). Moreover, by the middle of the 19th century, the East India Company had begun trading with other countries such as India, causing more disputes such as the Indian Military revolt of 1857 (Lindfield and Margrave, 2015).


Even amongst these international conflicts over tea and the fact that tea is inherently a commodity of foreign countries, tea still established itself as part of the British identity through the 17th to 19th century. According to some scholars, the conflicts during the Imperial era were, in fact, crucial contributing factors to this development of the imagery of tea as British. Sahlin (1989) defines national identity “by the social or territorial boundaries drawn to distinguish the collective self and its implicit negation, the other” (Sahlins, 1989: 270-271). Colley (1989) similarly argues that a sense of commonness formulates between citizens of a nation through ‘othering’ or when people could “feel united in domination over, and in distinction from, millions of colonial subjects beyond their own boundaries” (Colley, 1989: 325). Thus, the sense of ‘otherness’, which was created constantly between the British Empire and its colonies during conflicts, played a major role in what can be defined as national identity.


Furthermore, Schubert and Sutcliffe (1996) highlights the importance of such ‘othering’ by the British Empire in this period, not only in order to contrast itself from conflicting colonizing areas but also from rival European Empires that could threaten the power of the British Empire as the world power (Schubert and Sutcliffe, 1996). Moreover, according to Hall (1997), culture refers to “whatever is distinctive about the ‘way of life’ of a people, community, nation or social group” (Hall, 1997: 2). Thus, it could be further argued that, through the development of a feeling of ‘otherness’ from the conflicting areas, British people were encouraged to feel ‘distinct’ or superior from other colonies and European Empires. Moreover, this may have led them to become emotionally attached to each other through the culture they shared, which is the practice of tea. This commonness through tea gave the ability to “interpret the world in roughly the same ways and can express themselves” (Hall, 1997: 2) creating tea as a culture of Britain and an icon that all British could relate to. This meaning in tea, again, gave a sense of identity for British people, of “who we are and with whom we ‘belong’” (Hall, 1997: 3). In such principle, it could be argued that the conflicts over tea served as a distraction from internal conflicts and divisions and encouraged the citizens to feel the ‘otherness’ of the opponent in conflict, whilst finding a shared culture with other members of the nation through tea, which became part of their identity. Moreover, through the conflicts underlying tea, citizens of the British Empire were encouraged to identify tea as a commodity of the British Empire rather than associating tea as a foreign commodity, further developing tea as part of the British Empire.


The following section will analyse the ways in which Twinings brought tea out of the masculine domain of tea houses and introduced it into the domestic sphere, which led to further ‘othering’ by the British citizens and expanded the idea of tea as the British identity. Initially, tea houses were an exclusive, masculine space for men; it was used by men who sought for alternative spaces to gather for debates or businesses as opposed to social gatherings which took place in ale houses. Tea houses were therefore associated with signified meanings of intelligence and superiority (Lindfield and Margrave, 2015). However, this imagery was disrupted in 1706 when Thomas Twinings established the Golden Lyon, which was the first tea house to sell dry tea and Chinaware, and when he established today’s Twinings in 1717, which was the first tea house to accommodate both men and women (Gealson, 2007). Such revolutionary changes relocated the practice of tea from the masculine sphere to the domestic sphere for the middle class. In this sphere, tea drinking became a formal performance and developed its own etiquette and manners in the performance (Cruikshank, 1835). For example, people were to indicate that they had their fill by laying the spoon across the cup (Cruikshank, 1835). As Cruikshank (1835) illustrates, such coded language confused the international guests as it meant that only ones who had experienced this particular practice of tea could understand it. Thus, tea tables established its own language of behaviour that distinguished itself from other social spaces such as coffee houses and ale houses, or other colonies and European Empires. This is the ‘middle class decency’ in which the British Empire sought to establish in order to distinguish itself from other colonies and Empires, and create a sense of national identity in Britain (Lindfield and Margrave, 2015: 113).


Moreover, tea tables in the domestic sphere also became a unique space in which women had now the opportunity to take part in. Not only that, but it was the rare opportunity of disruption in the social hierarchy of gender in which women could be ranked above men. It was a new domestic sphere introduced in which the woman of the household held the overarching power and control over the performance, whilst the men attended the ceremony taking the secondary roles. Thus, tea tables held a role as a space “forging a unified English national identity out of disparate social groups, economic classes and genders separated by ideologically distinct spheres of daily life” (Smith, 2009: 11). The key ideology of women’s role yet remained unchanged within this domestic sphere, as tea ceremony still emphasized division in labour; the women had the hands-on role at tea tables at home symbolized her position as the caretaker and the provider of sustenance. However, in the nineteenth century, this gendered structure of the tea table was invested with the development of the idealization of domesticity. This is emphasized by Gaskell (1987) who describes the tea table as ‘women’s legitimate Empire’. Whilst this includes the connotations of  imperialism, it also suggests the restraints of the feminine sphere and what Nead (1984) refers to as the ‘domestic ideal’. This signifies morality, virtue and ultimately national stability. Nead (1984) claims that the domestic ideal suggests that the term ‘home’ underlined concerns of morality, economy and empire, and functioned as a symbol of national strength and a healthy nation. Such images portrayed the ideal moral culture of a nation, or ‘the middle class decency’. The association of such signified meanings in the domestic sphere portrayed tea as the ideal moral culture of the nation and the Empire. Moreover, it also shows the extent to which the effects of the British Empire penetrated in the culture of Britain, through what Gilbert and Driver (2000) argue as the sense of “intertwining of the ‘domestic’ and ‘imperial’ histories” (Gilbert and Driver, 2000: 26); this is the idea that not only did tea and the British Empire affect the international relations through trading and colonisation, but it also influenced the relations within the domestic sphere especially in terms of gender and ideals.  Furthermore, tea served as a way of justifying the “civilization of non-western culture” (Lindfield and Margrave, 2015: 107). Thus, as a product of the British Empire, tea and the practice at tea tables were symbolic of the civilised British culture.


Figure two Twinings and Limited Company (2017) Twinings poster from 1875
Figure 2: Twinings and Limited Company (2017) Twinings poster from 1875

The following section will examine two advertisements by Twinings during the era of the British Empire. Through this analysis, the essay will argue how Twinings express the dialogues of Imperial history of tea drinking and emphasize the associations between tea drinking and Britishness.


The first advertisement depicts a well-dressed white man, with a top hat and a suit, on a Victorian horseless carriage loaded with boxes of Twinings tea (See Figure 2). He drives the carriage in confidence, with one hand on the handle and a smile on the face. The yellow car, together with the posh outfit, may associate ideas of wealth. What is more symbolic is that the man is driving on a globe. These all may be a metaphor of not only the British Empire’s but the Twining’s economic and political power over its producers in multiple colonies well as the imagery of associating tea with middle class decency. It may also be argued as there is also the emphasis of the attempt to represent the modernisation and strength of the British Empire as the heart of the world in competition of other European Empires (Schubert and Sutcliffe, 1996). When Western men were used as the central subject in the advertisement instead of the women, they were to represent the international, public or political sphere (Lindfield and Margrave, 2015). The advertisement therefore supported the British Empire by positioning tea in the masculine sphere as an international and powerful agent, capable of civilizing the British domestic ideals.


Figure three Twinings and Limited Company (2017) Twinings poster from 1875
Figure 3: Twinings and Limited Company (2017) Twinings poster from 1875

The second advertisement, on the other hand, puts emphasis on the assimilation of Twinings with the royal family through jargons such as “Team to three Generations of the Royal Family”, “Her Majesty the Queen”, “H.R.H The Prince of Wales” and “H.R.H The Duke of York”, as well as through symbols of the royal coat of arms and the Prince of Wales’ feathers (See Figure 3). In fact, there is also the coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth II at the entrance of the flagship shop (See Figure 1), which indicates that the shop was granted with Royal Warrant (Lindfield and Margrave, 2015). Queen Victoria was the first to grant, which was in 1837, and every monarch has continued this association (Gealson, 2007).


The two posters have similarities in conveying the linkage between Britishness and tea through different means, the first being the British man and the second being the Royal family, but also through the exclusion of the image of process of production. The poster also perfectly excludes the production side of tea. In fact, during the nineteenth century, numerous media sensationalized the scientific findings of Chinese tea imports often having poisonous colour (Rapport, 2005). Thus, representation of the Chinese producers in advertisements drastically declined to maintain the pure imagery of tea and Britishness. These angelic and royal rhetoric used, on the one hand, served to neutralise the ‘foreignness’ of the product. On the other hand, it also functioned as a way to establish the middle class decency and emphasize the linkage of tea with the idea of national identity of the British Empire.


Figure four Photograph of Chinese workers processing tea
Figure 4: Gardella, R. (2002) Photograph of Chinese workers processing tea

Such imageries can be contrasted with photographs from the nineteenth century, which captures the production process of tea in China. This will outline why Twinings had to exclude the imageries of production from its advertisements to preserve the association of tea and middle class Britishness that the British Empire sought to export. The images found of tea production in China may be seen as the opposite of what the posters depict in multiple ways. For example, the photographs show Chinese men working barefoot with a thin piece of clothing in contrast to the smartly dressed white man in the first advertisement (See Figures 3 and 4). Moreover, the workers are using natural materials such as woven leaves unlike the advanced technology of the horseless carriage used in the first advertisement.

Figure five Photograph of Chinese workers transporting tea
Figure 5: Gardella, R. (2002) Photograph of Chinese workers transporting tea

Their working conditions give no image of the middle class decency that is depicted from the two advertisements. It could therefore be suggested that Twinings deliberately designed the posters to exclude the production side of tea in the foreign countries to maintain the middle class imagery of tea and Britishness. Through the use of advertisements, which was pitched to a cross-class and cross-gender audience, ideas of Imperial and middle class values were imposed on the British citizens which contributed in the continuation and the expansion of the association between tea and the middle class values, as well as between tea and Britishness.


The essay has analysed the relationships between the British Empire and Twinings through three sections. The first section examined the conflicts over tea trade, and argued how this encouraged a sense of ‘otherness’ against other colonies and a sense of commonness within the nation through the shared culture of tea, leading to the formation of national identity and superiority against other nations, establishing tea as a symbolic imagery of the British identity. The following section explored the ways in which such sense of the British, middle class decency was portrayed through tea, by creating a particular and exclusive language at the tea table, and also by the idealisation of domesticity. The final section examined two posters, which was followed by the analysis of photographs of tea production in China in order to emphasize the contrasts in the imagery which of luxury and power in the advertisements and the imagery of physical labour and poverty in the photographs. The investigations through the three sections has not only shown Twinings as an Imperial artifact in London with its history intertwining with the British Empire, but also has shown its importance in supporting the Empire in establishing an imagery of middle class decency of the British identity through tea as a commodity and culture of Britain, regardless of the foreign roots of the product.



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