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Tacoma's Tea Story

Written by Mikki Van Natta | Edited by Mary Bowlby
Originally published in the Eureka Times, 2011 Winter issue

Opening the Door to Trade with Asia

On August 7, 1885, at three o’clock in the morning, the Isabel safely and swiftly docked at the wharves of Tacoma, just south of Old Town, with a precious cargo of tea. The next day the Daily Ledger stated, “Many were the people, young and old who wended their way down the long planks walk to the wharf yesterday to view the barque Isabel which arrived during the night.” What would have caused these people to make this long journey just to see a trade ship filled with tea? How can tea be that important?

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A History of Tea

Emperor Shen Nung, a revered leader who ruled in China over 4,000 years ago, considered himself a scientist. He believed that drinking boiled water was healthier than just drinking water from the well. In 2737 BC the Emperor and his advisors were taking their daily stroll through the gardens, when a leaf broke off a tree and fell into the Emperor’s boiled water. The Emperor sipped the now flavored water and loved it. Soon tea was popular all over Asia. After the exotic herb was brought back to Portugal in the late 1500’s, European demand for tea and trade with Asia became established.

Each region’s culture was reflected in the wares used to serve tea. In Asia a tea was served in a small bowl with no handle, because they believed in moderation. European cups held much more tea. They had a handle, so they would be easier to hold. Also, Europeans designed tea pots with handles on the side (instead of over the top, as the Chinese tea pots were made), saucers, stirring spoons, tea caddies, tea scoops, sugar bowls, and creamers to complete the set.

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A special sterling silver scoop was used to scoop and measure the amount of tea leaves.

By the 18th century, tea was the most important drink in the European world. In the beginning tea was very expensive and only enjoyed by the rich, but as trade grew prices dropped. Tea parties became more known as a common social event where women would gather and gossip over the latest news or smooth over a disagreement. “…and she thought she could smooth off all by inviting both her and her mother to a sociable tea.”3 Truly, a hot cup of tea was highly valued, wherever you were. “There was, fortunately, water enough left in the barrel to set the bread and half-fill the tea kettle; and we soon made a little blaze with sticks, which served to boil the kettle to make that luxury of the woods, a cup of green tea.”

Tea was popular throughout the world and was even used as currency in remote areas. Tea leaves where ground up and pressed into bricks for shipment. Embossed with a design to identify the brand on one side and deeply grooved on the other, so it could be broken into smaller pieces to pay for goods and services. In America, trade with Asia for tea and silk were in high demand. As trade grew so did the ports, towns, and cities that were entry points along the way.

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A brick of tea

Tea Arrives in Tacoma

Tacoma started trading with Asia with the arrival of the barque Isabel. The ship docked in Tacoma on Friday August 7, 1885 at 3am with a cargo of 22,475 chests of tea. Each chest weighing 85 pounds (total weight: 955 tons). Some of the tea brands were: “Turkey”, “Bear”, “Horsehead”, and “Eagle”. The tea was shipped via the Northern Pacific Railroad to New York.

The people of Tacoma were so overjoyed by this valuable cargo, they decorated the town with banners and ribbons. At 9am on August 7, 1885, almost all the townspeople went down the wharf to cheer when the first chest of tea was unloaded at 10:25am. For the next week information about Isabel captured a place in “The Daily Leger” describing it as the most historic event of the century.

Cargo was normally unloaded by using slings, but Captain Joseph (James) Howe felt it would go faster if the chests were passed man-to-man. Longshoremen uloaded from 7am to 7pm, with a day off to rest because it was illegal to work on Sunday. [One day a mathematician came down to the docks to estimate how long the unloading would take. He calculated that 5½ chests were being unloaded every minute. That is 1 chest every 10 seconds!] The last chest was unloaded Friday August 14, 1885, a week after docking.

The tea was going to be shipped by brand, 20 cars at a time to New York, but first it needed to be separated by brand. Instead of taking the tea straight from the ship to the boxcars as they had planned, it was taken to a warehouse to be separated and inventoried. When the first 20 cars were ready to go, the railroad workers painted the car with the company brand on the side along with the words “The first shipment of tea from Tacoma”.

Tea didn’t just flow in and out of Tacoma. Some local business owners profited from the tea trade. Over 35 different retail stores, such as Great American Importing Tea Co, Rhodes Brothers, Union Pacific Tea, Tacoma Tea Store, and Imperial Tea Store, sold tea in the last decade of the 19th century. A few of the wholesalers were West Coast Grocery Co, Ferrera D & Co, Campbell John G & Co. Some of the buildings housing these businesses are still standing today.

The Crew of the Isabel

The Isabel took off from Yokohama on July 4, 1885. The crew consisted of 12 seamen, a steward, and 3 boys. There was one registered passenger on board. About 40 miles out of Yokohama, after the crew of the Isabel had lost sight of land, 2 stowaways were found on the forward hold of the ship. Since the ship could not turn around, the stowaways were forced to work to pay for their passage. The trip lasted 33 days. There was no sickness or bad weather and all of the cargo remained undamaged.

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The ship Isabel

In an interview with Captain Joseph (James) Howe, the Tacoma Daily Ledger explained that he had been in the trade business since he was a young boy -- spending most of his life on the water -- and had now grown afraid of the land. He wasn't sure about Tacoma when he first hear about it and as they were coming closer he wasn't sure if he wanted to dock, but as soon as he saw the Tacoma wharves he rejoiced. He said by the sign of Tacoma he knew it was a safe place and was eager to dock. His crew was also pleased their journey had come to end.

"As the gallant ship sailed up the bay citizens living near the northerly limits of the city were greeted with a serenade from the jolly tars, who were exulting over having reached their journey's end by indulging in the pleasant sailor songs." -- Tacoma Daily News, August 7, 1885

Tea and other goods from Asia were in high demand in America. The tea trade increased Tacoma’s reputation as a modern port city. As trade with Asia increased, Tacoma grew. The tea trade helped Tacoma become the first port on Puget Sound to trade with Asia, eventually becoming known as the port “Where the rails meet the sails.”

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The ship Republic discharging tea on the docks of Tacoma, 1888


The Daily Ledger August 7, 1885 – August 14, 1885

Fetterly, Judith, Provision, A Reader from the 19th Century

Ott, Jennifer, Ship Isabel docks at Tacoma with first tea cargo from Asia bound for East Coast via railroad on August 16, 1885.

Tacoma City Directory; source: Tacoma Public Library 1888 -1900

Tacoma Daily News August 7, 1885

About the Author

Mikki Van Natta was a junior at Tacoma School of the Arts (SOTA) in 2011. During the month of January, she did an internship at Job Carr Cabin Museum, completing research on the tea trade that had been in the works and writing this paper, which was the basis for an exhibit at the museum. Mikki was not raised in Tacoma and didn't know any of the local history, but she loved learning about it. Her major at SOTA was theater and her minor was photography.