stewed tea

Perusing early uses of “stew”, I noticed that “stewed tea” warranted its own OED notes. It made perfect sense: it’s the only case in which “stewed” reliably means “overcooked”, unless, of course, you prefer your dried fruits unrehydrated in any way or know someone inevitably prone to overcooking all foods.

The earliest use of “stewed tea” the dictionary has is from 1908. The phrase appears in Arnold Bennett’s novel, Old Wives’ Tale. Two new guests arrive at a hotel, avidly watched by the assembled guests, gathered for afternoon tea: “They vanished quietly upstairs in convoy of the manager’s wife, and they did not re-appear for the lounge tea, which in any case would have been undrinkably stewed.”

Rudyard Kipling uses the phrase twice in his 1926 collection of short stories, Debits and Credits, in “The Wish House” and “A Friend of the Family”. (The stories were written between 1923 and 1925.) In both cases, it is part of a larger repast, whether “buttered toast, currant bread, stewed tea, bitter as leather, some home-preserved pears, and a cold boiled pig’s tail to help down the muffins” in the first case, or “stewed tea with your meat four times a day”, as in the second.

A few intriguing snippets from Google Books pushes the earliest date of its use further back, if those dates of publication are correct. In 1905, a local education authority in Great Britain advised that “If you take this stewed tea it will prevent you from getting the proper goodness out of your food.” It continues on to recommend that tea being drunk promptly after brewing. In 1904, Vol. 8 of The Queen Cookery Books uses it, although the available excerpt is not enough to provide anything more than a description of what stewed tea is.

In any event, “stewed tea”, as a phrase, first shows up in print at the beginning of the twentieth century, leaving me wondering about the earlier history of words used to describe over-steeped tea. Quickly checking Google Books again: “Over brewed tea” goes back at least to 1884. “Over steeped tea”, a rarer phrase, at least to 1915. And before 1884?

3 responses to “stewed tea”

  1. arnold says:

    Earliest use in the Times Digital Archive is 1892, from a letter on seamen’s food: ‘The biscuit, which is the principal object of a seaman’s diet, is usually more or less full of weevils .. To sit down to a pot of coffee or stewed tea with one or two of these vermin-filled biscuits to pull to pieces and eat, and this at the commencement of a passage of three or four months’ duration, with the certain prospect of this being the principal article of diet during that period, is sufficient to dishearten a ‘Mark Tapley‘ and to make him discontented with his lot.’ It sounds as though the phrase was in pretty common use by then.

  2. sworthen says:

    Thank you for pushing back the date! I wonder why coffee was thought to be as bad as stewed tea in that context?

  3. arnold says:

    I did some more research into the history of ‘stewed tea’ and managed to push the origin of the phrase back to the 1850s. I was going to post the results here, but it got long, so in the end I decided to turn it into a separate post, which you can find here, with due acknowledgment to you.

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