Thomas Lipton

Thomas Lipton
Thomas Lipton revolutionized the tea industry in the 1880s by purchasing his own tea gardens and eliminating the middle man.
By Bruce Richardson • Images Courtesy of the Benjamin Press Archives

Scottish entrepreneur Thomas Lipton changed the way Britons drank their tea.

The name Lipton has been synonymous with tea for nearly 150 years. Thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of the company’s founder and namesake, Thomas Lipton, the internationally known brand accounts for 14 percent of today’s global tea market.

Lipton was born May 10, 1850, to Northern Ireland immigrants living in a four-room tenement on the outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland. He attended St. Andrew’s Parish School where primary education cost 3 pence a week, but he was never happier than when in the atmosphere of ships, sailors, boats, and the waterside. By age 14, the precocious teenager had booked passage to America—just as the Civil War was coming to a close.

Lipton was among the thousands of Irish and Scottish immigrants who arrived every day at New York’s Ellis Island. Finding no work in the city, he accepted a job in the tobacco fields of a Virginia plantation. Lipton next worked on a rice plantation on Coosaw Island in South Carolina, where responsibilities in finances and bookkeeping gave him a good grounding in running an enterprise. (Less than a century later, Lipton Tea Company would establish a tea research farm on Wadmalaw Island, only 20 miles north of that rice plantation.)

It wasn’t long before young Lipton got what he called “that restless feelin’” and suddenly decided to board a schooner for the short ride up to Charleston. The details of the next two years are vague, but it is known that he returned to New York. This time he was lucky and was hired as an assistant in a prosperous New York grocery store. He quickly learned the grocery trade and the secrets of his future success, while picking up American techniques of salesmanship and advertising.

But in spring 1869, Lipton again had “that restless feelin’” and decided to return home to Scotland, where he took over his parents’ grocery shop and quickly turned their fortunes around. After only two years of working in the shop, Lipton opened his first grocery on Stobcross Street in Glasgow on his 21st birthday. Goods were stacked in New York City fashion, not for the convenience of the proprietors but with the purpose of catching the customers’ attention. Lipton used another business technique learned from his mother. She, rather than dealing with middlemen at the markets, dealt directly with the farmers of her homeland. He followed her example as he bought bacon, eggs, butter, and other produce directly from local farmers.

His first grocery did so well that in 1876, he moved to larger premises on High Street. He later added three more, and by 1882, he had shops in the cities of Dundee, Paisley, Edinburgh, and Leeds.

Lipton ad
This advertisement from an 1894 London magazine touts Thomas Lipton’s awards at the Chicago Columbian Exposition.

The opening of each new Lipton location was cause for newspaper advertisements, posters, and parades. Thomas Lipton himself appeared at each opening to offer prizes to the first customers. In 1881, he announced he would import the world’s largest cheese from New York. Apparently, 800 cows were milked for six days, and the labor of 200 dairymaids was needed to make this enormous product. The streets of Glasgow were lined with spectators cheering the giant cheese on its way to Lipton’s new High Street store. At Christmas, the shopkeeper announced that in the tradition of Christmas pudding, his cheese would contain silver coins to be found by its buyers. It was cut and completely sold out in just two hours. These giant cheeses became part of Lipton’s annual Christmas displays in all his stores.

After achieving his general trade goals, Lipton turned his attention to tea. Drinking tea was still prohibitively expensive for the average working-class family. After investigating the trade further with tea brokers in London, he decided to do what he had done with meat and produce, that is, cut out the middleman and lower the price to his customers. Within a year, he was selling huge amounts of tea in pound, half-pound, and quarter-pound packets. The blends were made especially for the areas around his shops so that Lipton could advertise “the perfect tea to suit the water of your town.” Lipton’s rule was to abolish “wherever possible, the middleman or intermediary profiteer between the producer and consumer.” To achieve that goal for his tea trade, he needed to control the whole tea-production process. He secretly booked a passage to Australia but disembarked at the island country of Ceylon, home of the British Empire’s newest tea plantations.

Lipton postcard
In London, Thomas Lipton published a series of postcards illustrating his vast tea enterprises in Ceylon.

The summer of 1878 brought a devastating blight to the coffee crop in Ceylon, and coffee plantations were available at half price. Lipton purchased five plantations and left the managers in charge with funds to rip out the dead coffee trees and plant tea bushes. Now he could manage the entire tea-manufacturing process. Within a few years, Lipton’s Ceylon teas began arriving in London, and, of course, he had a new slogan ready: “Direct from the tea garden to the tea pot.”

Through tea, Lipton’s became a household name and an international commodity. Thomas Lipton’s 300 shops had made him a millionaire, but tea made him a multimillionaire.

Bruce Richardson is coauthor of A Social History of Tea: Tea’s Influence on Commerce, Culture & Community, available from or by calling 800-765-2139.

From TeaTime July/August 2014


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