Tea in France—Ooh, La La!

Tea in France—Ooh, La La!
Interior view of an early tea salon in Paris, probably from the early 1900s. Photograph Courtesy of Charles W. Bush.

A pictorial history of French tea drinking through postcards.

Women in Ceylon sort tea leaves for size and quality by hand just as they have done for decades. Photograph Courtesy of Charles W. Bush.

In the land of Moulin Rouge, cancan girls, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, postcards depicting tea were not produced in abundance. The majority of early popular French postcards were not even referred to as postcards. They were known by collectors as “studio art cards.” These cards were produced primarily for their titillation value and were targeted to a male audience. These cards were risqué, and they were, and still are, very popular.

The degree of obscenity of these cards became so graphic that they were specifically addressed in the Comstock Act of 1873. This law made it illegal to send obscene, lewd, or lascivious material via the United States Postal System. There had always been some publishers who refused to profit from this very lucrative form of soft pornography, and following the passage of the Comstock Act, their numbers grew. That’s when in France, like most other areas, more postcards focusing on social and cultural aspects of day-to-day life were produced.

The clipper ship was designed to speed delivery of perishable exports, especially beer and tea. Photograph Courtesy of Charles W. Bush.

Tea is one of those gastronomic delights that garnered attention, and the images on these pages demonstrate a few of the aspects of tea that French society has long considered meaningful.

The origins of tea began in China more than 3,000 years ago. One legend has it that in 2737 B.C., the Chinese Emperor Shennong was sitting under a tree when the wind blew several tea leaves into his cup of hot water. The emperor found the drink both refreshing and invigorating and ordered that the tea plant be cultivated extensively in China.

Afternoon tea in France has long been associated with elaborate ceremony, as in this case with a small orchestra for background music. Photograph Courtesy of Charles W. Bush.


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