Tea as Cultural Commodity How today's cup of tea stretches all the way from ancient China to Starbucks' commercial empire.

A Thirst For Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World

By Erika Rappaport (2017, Princeton University Press) 568 pages with notes, index, and illustrations

Last November, I sent my students to Starbucks. Not to drink a $5 latte or hang with friends; not to watch Netflix or do homework; just to sit quietly and observe—to notice the people, the environment, the dynamics of the “coffee experience” that has become a daily habit for so many of American (some 38 percent of who recently reported that they have been to Starbucks at least once in the last month).[1]  I wanted them to think about what is so appealing about the Starbucks lifestyle, and why there had been so little resistance to the coffee giant’s ascendancy.

We were picking up where Bryant Simon leaves off in his 2009 study Everything but the Coffee: Learning About America From Starbucks, which explores the Fortune 500 company’s philosophy, business practices, and impact on mainstream culture worldwide. Other readings from the course, a junior-level seminar in American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, provided theoretical and historical context for the mini-ethnography I had assigned, and for our semester-long consideration of the politics of consumption. What, we had been asking, does it mean to say that what we buy (or indeed refuse to buy) has political meaning—that it reflects our values and identity? How has “Buying American” (the course title)—from “See America First” and war bond campaigns of the early 20th century to civil rights boycotts to today’s “buy-local” movement—shaped ideals of citizenship, national belonging, and social responsibility? And what are the legacies of such activism in our own time? These matters had taken on a new urgency as white nationalism infused political discourse and trade protectionism and immigration became the subject of regular White House tweets.

My students were surprisingly giddy as they gave their Starbucks reports.  One by one they characterized the coffee house scene as they had observed it, describing the menu, product displays, atmospherics, color scheme, consumer demographics and barista banter. Even the ambient music of the coffee chain’s “soundtrack” and configuration of seating received attention.  I have rarely seen such enthusiasm about a fieldwork assignment—or such loving attention to run-of-the-mill commercial transactions!  They had assembled an impressively detailed data set, and were poised to make some powerful connections with other course material.

Authenticity has become a commodity in its own right; progressive, public-minded people have been lured into thoroughly privatized lifestyles of the sort epitomized by Starbucks.

But the critiques that followed—the kind you would expect on a largely progressive college campus—were not as trenchant as I was expecting.  In the end, they were pretty mesmerized by the carefully-managed brand culture of Starbucks.  They could perceive in it all the contradictory logics of co-called conscientious capitalism—the ‘free trade,’ ‘green’ and ‘buy local’ sensibilities that turn out to be rooted primarily in affect and association rather than action.  But they could not see broader patterns and implications, nor step outside the transactionalist view of consumption that so dominates our culture. They were trapped inside what Sarah Banet-Weiser has called the “politics of ambivalence” whereby consumers’ desires to claim “authenticity” (that is, the self-expressive potential, political and social agency, or sense of the “real” that many brands promise, drowning out their doubts and concerns about the effects of commodity capitalism.[2] Authenticity has become a commodity in its own right; progressive, public-minded people have been lured into thoroughly privatized lifestyles of the sort epitomized by Starbucks.

Erika Rappaport’s new book would have helped my students, and not just because it deals with the history of the products—including ideals of authenticity—that Starbucks sells. A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World explores tea as a global commodity whose history has been shaped by the transformations of capitalism and the regimes of empire and nationalism—the very forces, we might say, that have given us Starbucks.

Rappaport, a University of California at Santa Barbara professor of history known for her work on shopping and gender in 19th- and early-20th-century London, has a powerful imagination for consumer culture and its complex configurations. An “apparently simple” cup of tea, she explains, is the product of a vast “constellation of ideas, communities, territories, and physical and psychological experiences”—and of “the relentless movement of ideas, material, money and people across vast territories and long periods of time” (408). In tracing this byzantine history, she demonstrates tea’s vital significance as a “special” commodity—special, that is, not only because it has such a widely ramifying history, but also because it is near and dear to so many hearts around the globe, and so vital an element of commodity culture. She also nudges students of culture toward a more-nuanced and fully-globalized conception of commodity capitalism.

A Thirst for Empire will challenge readers who assume (as my students tend to do) that 20th-century Americans invented consumer culture, or conceive it as a set of supply-and-demand chains and advertising claims. One reason is the book’s sheer interpretative ambition: Rappaport’s twelve substantive chapters trace several hundred years of history, exploring countless rituals, trade and political associations and social practices of tea, and drawing upon thousands of archival sources. Building on the work of Sidney Mintz, Arjun Apparadurai and others who conceptualized the history of capitalism, she characterizes the material, bodily, social and political practices of tea, stitching it into broader histories of empire, religion, social reform, global trade and mass culture. Along the way, she engages more-specialized literatures as well: the histories of food, advertising, war and nationalism, as well as fashion and material culture, among others.

Rappaport’s twelve substantive chapters trace several hundred years of history, exploring countless rituals, trade and political associations and social practices of tea, and drawing upon thousands of archival sources.

The book is both extensive and intensive in its treatment of tea as a cultural commodity (though the phrase hardly does justice to an approach she modestly calls a “ground-up” history). Rappaport attends to tea as a plant and process of harvest; as a drink and a set of rituals; as a status symbol and a market-spawning product; and as a testing ground for early modern brand cultures and mythologies (or perhaps, given tea’s allure and perceived importance, cosmologies). In short, she considers tea as a multi-layered, transnational phenomenon akin to the one we encounter when we order a cup of Starbucks’ “Tarrazu Harvest Costa Rica Reserve” coffee or “Organic Jade Citrus Mint” tea. We could trace tea’s imperial history in names like these, and the promotional discourses that pivot from that history to conscientious capitalism. Starbucks’ “Karinga” blend from Kenya, for example, is said to be made of “beans nourished by the rich red volcanic loam” and “processed using river water—a practice that helps reduce environmental impact”.[3] Rappaport introduces both subtexts and analogues for such strategies from the history of tea, such that we will never think the same way about our hot beverages again.

Importantly, the book also serves as a corrective for transactionalist models that suggest a global commodity’s character can be fathomed by attending to individual or collective “acts of consumption.” It also expands our historical imagination of such consumption. While tea interests were initially advanced by infamous agents of imperialism such as the East India Tea Company, the Planter Raj and the India Tea Association, its character was shaped, and its phenomenal popularity cemented, by means of myriad lesser-known agents and practices. Its power as a national drink grew during the world wars that in fact depressed trade, thanks to industry- and state-sponsored bureaucracies. Despite the nationalizing of colonial tea markets in South Asia at the fin de siecle—and sophisticated marketing campaigns that aimed to “detoxify” the commodity in the minds of westerners—tea’s imperialist hangover persisted well into the 20th century.

Rappaport shows that the mentalities and market logics associated with earlier stages of globalization persisted throughout the long (some say ongoing) post-colonial era—a period when tea has remained an everyday drink in Britain and the former colonies, but become the subject of nostalgia or heritage consumption as well. It has always been far-less-popular in the United States, largely because of association with British markets (a tea sub-plot Rappaport traces, starting with the Boston Tea Party). Yet Americans do not consciously register tea’s imperial associations in the grocery aisle when buying Twinings, Lipton and Good Earth. Rappaport brings them back into our consciousness.

… readers will never again conceive of tea’s heritage as a straightforward matter. Rappaport presents British nationalism and commodity culture as inherently hybrid, full of incoherent practices that serve many interests, not all of them economic and political.

Throughout the book, she acknowledges that tea’s cultural identity, like its imperial past, is shot through with contradictions. While long viewed as the “national drink” of Britain, tea’s “Britishness” has always depended upon, and been defined by, contact with (and absorption of) foreign states and peoples, especially in China and Ceylon, which had preexisting tea cultures that (pun intended) infused those in the U.K. The demand for tea grew exponentially, furthermore, because of changes in consumption and distribution practice in Britain’s various colonial territories—changes it could not fully control. There are several embryonic national histories of tea—“Indian,” “Ceylonese,” “African,” “Chinese,” and even “Canadian” and “Australian”—embedded in this book, which Rappaport hopes we will pursue.

Whether they do or not, readers will never again conceive of tea’s heritage as a straightforward matter. Rappaport presents British nationalism and commodity culture as inherently hybrid, full of incoherent practices that serve many interests, not all of them economic and political. For those like my students who are largely oriented to the American perspective, it suggests the need to think about commodities more expansively—to attend to their trans-national and trans-cultural dimensions. And it encourages us to confront the entrenched, if largely sublimated, imperialist features of their own experience of consumer culture.

When I teach this book in the coming years I will highlight Rappaport’s care in laying out a framework for engaging the “industries” (variously understood) of tea culture.  She conceives of market “flows” as complex movements not only of commodities and capital, but identities, ideas and practices—in short, as the processes of ideology and culture.  Some of her most evocative stories deal with the “middle zone” of tea culture and its agents, the myriad planters, distributers, grocers, entrepreneurs, advertisers, housewives-turned-social-reformers, market researchers, trade experts, and pop stars who shaped tea consumption. These stories capture (though do not exhaustively explain) how the “global cultures of tea” became entwined with local and national imaginaries.  Rappaport follows the zig-zagging paths of brand culture, and she never assumes brands are shallow.  We might be surprised to learn that tea’s 19th- and 20th-century “brand mediaries,” as Banet-Weiser would call them, often expressed modern styles of ambivalence. Rappaport makes clear that tea culture reflected many of the contradictory longings we see in our own time, and stresses that these are processes whose histories we have only begun to reconstruct.

Rappaport makes clear that tea culture reflected many of the contradictory longings we see in our own time, and stresses that these are processes whose histories we have only begun to reconstruct.

Which brings me back to Starbucks. My students picked up on what we might call “imperialist undertones” in the company’s brand culture, which (as Simon observes) celebrates its leadership in the “global coffee trade” but then mystifies what that trade—and their leadership in it—actually entails. The allure of Starbucks depends upon a submerged history of capitalist extraction, which includes labor, environment, and market-manipulation practices that were innovated centuries ago.  Some were perfected by tea planters and promoters, and many have been skillfully reframed in fair-trade narratives and corporate ethics statements of today. They are embedded in our commodity culture. While they hardly appreciated their origins, or what to do about them, my students acknowledged their complicity in sophisticated brand logics, as well as in the knowing-but-not-knowing of conscientious capitalism. One student confessed that she goes to Starbucks at least once a day, and named a figure—several thousand dollars—that she spends there on chai tea and caramel lattes each year. “I’m not proud of it,” she admitted, “but Starbucks is a very comforting ritual that I have been indulging in since I was kid.”

A Thirst for Empire offers far more than an enthralling back-story for this ritual.  In its far-reaching and imaginative interpretation of tea—the humble and seemingly benign drink with a fraught “imperialist” history—Rappaport’s book not only advances new conceptions of consumer culture and commodity flows, but illuminates tea’s “special” power, including darker elements of that power we must learn to acknowledge. What would it mean to recognize these elements in our own time, and to reckon with the imperial legacies of our Starbucks habit?

[1] See https://www.statista.com/statistics/230985/people-who-visited-starbucks-usa/

[2] Sarah Banet-Weiser, Authentic: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture.  New York: New York University Press, 2012.

[3] See, e.g., http://www.starbucksreserve.com/kenya-karinga.

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