What Was Liberty Tea?

My recent post about the Daughters of Liberty got me to thinking about exactly what ingredients  an 18th century patriotic woman or man might throw into a pot of Liberty Tea. As a romance novelist, I thought the details could be highly useful for bringing a scene to life, e.g., what exactly would my heroine’s reaction be to sipping a cup of Liberty Tea consisting of boiled bay leaves. (Mine would probably be “yuck!”)

Here are some of the variations of Liberty Tea I’ve run across in my research:

Note: Since I originally posted this, I've run across a few new variations including pine needle tea. ( I cannot imagine drinking this and not running for the chamber pot!) If you've heard of a unique variation of Liberty Tea, please share!

From the Family Cookbook project…Wait, this one includes Tang as an ingredient. I’m fairly certain that wasn’t around in 1773. That said, the combination sounds yummier than some of the other recipes for Liberty Tea, so click on the link if you’re interested.

A field of Purple Loostrife outside Concord, Massachusetts.
source: Wikimedia Commons
artist: Liz West
While not an actual recipe, here’s a historical reference to a recipe calling for “four-leaved Loostrife. The only species of Loosestrife I am familiar with is Purple Loosestrife, a pretty little plant that is quite invasive and illegal to plant in my state. Wikipedia lists it as not being native to America, but perhaps this is when the proliferation started. Regardless, I wouldn’t describe the plant as particularly tasty looking, and even if I could still find some in my neighborhood, I’m not about to try brewing it.

Homemade root beer – Now this I’d try. This traditional sounding recipe contains sassafras bark, birch bark, sarsaparilla root, licorice root, ginger and vanilla. All of these sound like ingredients that could be brewed as a substitute for tea, although I imagine ginger and vanilla would be quite expensive at the time as they aren’t plants that are native to North America. At the bottom of this recipe, it notes that this root beer is slightly alcoholic, and I doubt it’s low calorie considering the amount of molasses the recipe calls for. So, while a tempting substitute for tea, it probably wasn’t one that would be consumed on a regular basis.

Here’s a treasure trove of Liberty Tea possibilities from a posting on Ancestory.com. Sassafras tea seems a very likely possibility and probably didn’t taste too bad, although most recipes for sassafras tea suggest brewing it weak. Despite the various prohibitions on trade, there was probably enough molasses and sugar available thanks to smuggling to make this tea quite palatable.

Another recipe noted in this post calls for "three generous sprigs of fresh lemon balm leaves, a sprig of sage, and three lavender blossoms." I suspect all of these ingredients would have been readily available in the average colonial garden. While ingredients like sage might seem a bit savory (as opposed to sweet), I think it's important to remember that 18th century Americans probably didn't have our sweet tooth yet. 

Finally, one of the best articles comes from one of my fellow American History Group members on linked in – After the Boston Tea Party. The writer shows how Americans used a multi-pronged approach to discouraging tea drinking. If patriotic reasons weren’t enough for you, the stuff was bad for your health.

". . .I am bold to say, I never saw a Man or Woman who from Youth was fond of and practised drinking Tea freely that was not rendered a weak, effeminate, and creeping Valetudinarian for life."
Philo Aletheias
(probably not his real name)

Valetudinarian was a new word for me. It basically means someone who is chronically ill, or at least believes themselves to be. Scroll down toward the bottom of this post for a number of recipes reported to cure a whole host of ills, valteduinarianism included I suppose.

Heard of an unusual recipe for Liberty Tea? Let me know in the comments. In the meantime, I'm going to go make a latte!


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