Jonathan Swift’s cup of tea, Downton Abbey style

500px-Jonathan_Swift_by_Charles_Jervas_detailHow to make a good cup if tea? This is the advice, given to a footman, of the satirist and poet Jonathan Swift:

When you are to get Water on for Tea after Dinner (which in many Families is Part of your office) to save Firing, and to make more Haste, pour it into the Tea-pot, from the Pot where Cabbage or Fish have been boyling, which will make it much wholsomer, by curing the acid and corroding Quality of the Tea (p. 30)

This most unpleasant advice is contained in Swift’s mock-treatise Directions to Servants, published in 1745.[1] To save time when called on to make tea, the narrator advises the footman, there is no need to boil fresh water — all you need to do is use the hot water you have to hand, such as that used to boil cabbage or fish.

The Directions to Servants is a relentless and hilarious social satire, probably unfinished at Swift’s death, though written or accumulated over a period of nearly 30 years. It offers a collection of advice to servants: butler, cook, footman, groom, chamber-maid, waiting-maid, and governess, amongst others. The trick is, that all the advice is illegitimate, ironic and inverted. David Nokes, in his biography of Swift, calls the book a ‘handbook for domestic guerrilla warfare’, and indeed it does 210px-Directions_to_servants_-_Frontespizio_della_seconda_edizione_(Robert_Dodsley_e_Mary_Cooper_-_1745)assume that between upstairs and downstairs is a constant skirmish for advantage.[2] Swift was obviously enormously attentive to the lives, actions and interests of the servant classes, and was aware both that the relation between master and servant was a contest for resources, emotional and material. All the mock recommendations he makes in the Directions identify exactly the diverse and repeated complaints made about servants in the period.

The advice is set in a London household of a married couple and their children, and is narrated, at least at first, from the point of view of a knowing footman. The advice he gives ironically assumes that the purpose of being a servant is to do everything possible to extract value from the master and his family, either by stealing or wasting commodities, avoiding work, or destroying property. The servants also have a very poor view of their master’s taste and judgment: in Swift’s view, almost no fraud or deception might not be attempted by the servants without the master noticing. The Directions to Servants is in this sense like other counter-conduct manuals such as The Art of Ingeniously Tormenting (1753),[3] Jane Collier’s advice book on the craft of nagging


On making tea, Swift has one more piece of advice, in his ‘Directions to the WAITING-MAID’, and this concerns the increasing habit of keeping the family’s tea under lock and key. This is one of two accidents or disasters that have happened to ‘lessen the comforts and profits’ of the state of Chamber-Maid-dom. This is:

the invention of small chests and trunks with lock and key, wherein they keep the tea and sugar, without which it is impossible for a waiting-maid to live: for, by this means, you are forced to buy brown sugar, and pour water upon the leaves, when they have lost all their spirit and taste.

Swift’s adviser has no remedy for this act of cruelty, except to suggest

there is no other method to relieve yourselves, but by a false key, which is a point both difficult and dangerous to compass; but, as to the circumstance of honesty in procuring one, I am under no doubt, when your mistress gives you so just a provocation by refusing you an ancient and legal perquisite. The mistress of the tea shop may now and then give you half an ounce; but that will be only a drop in the bucket: therefore I fear you must be forced, like the rest of your sisters, to run in trust, and pay for it out of your wages, as far as they will go, which you can easily make up other ways, if your lady be handsome, or her daughters have good fortunes. Pp. 81-82

As all this testifies, by 1745 at the latest, Swift estimates that tea was the constant companion of the servant classes: it had moved from being a luxury only for the wealthy elite, to being more widely consumed by the ordinary people of Britain. As Swift said in 1723, tea is ‘the common luxury of every chambermaid, sempstress, and tradesman’s wife, both in town and country’.[4]

a_late_george_iii_painted-wood_tea_chest_circa_1780_painted_with_georg_d5602761h6190_roentgenmahoganyteacaddy04So in Swift’s view, the purpose of a the lock and key in tea chests is to prevent theft of tea, and the only possible culprits was the pilfering of servants. This in turn not only testifies to the intense desire for tea amongst the domestic working classes, but also the constant, nagging class warfare that raged between upstairs and downstairs in the eighteenth century household.

Rowlandson, 'Directions to Servants', 1790s
Rowlandson, ‘Directions to Servants’, 1790s

This is part of a series of posts to this blog that relate to specific chapters of Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World.


[1] Jonathan Swift, Directions to Servants (London: R. Dodsley and M. Cooper, 1745), in The Prose Writings of Jonathan Swift, ed. Herbert Davis and others, 16 vols. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1939-74), vol. xiii, pp. 3-65, 209-20.

[2] David Nokes, Jonathan Swift, a hypocrite reversed: a critical biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[3] Jane Collier, An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting, ed. Katharine Craik (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[4] A proposal that all the ladies and women of Ireland should appear constantly in Irish manufactures (1723).


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