Guest Post: Tea, Coffee and Gender Anxiety in Eighteenth-century England

The Historical Cooking Project is pleased to share Mona O'Brien's guest post, "Tea, Coffee and Gender Anxiety in Eighteenth-century England." This piece is based on her Master’s Dissertation, undertaken at the University of Edinburgh in 2015. 

Today, across many societies around the globe, tea and coffee form part of the daily diet. This is undoubtedly the case in the UK; I pass a host of cafés selling an infinite list of coffees, teas, and caffeinated concoctions each morning on my half hour walk to the university campus. And I pass yet more people carrying cups of hot drinks on their way to work or school. As for myself, I don't think twice about having a cup of tea. Indeed the only time I'll really think about my consumption of these beverages is when I somehow manage to go a whole day without consuming one. That said, we are not entirely passive consumers, articles appear quite frequently in the media advocating or denouncing these drinks and studies of their properties also continue. Overall, however, these drinks form a normal, and often comforting, part daily life for many people across the globe.

England began importing large quantities of coffee in the seventeenth century, while large-scale tea imports started a little later, during the eighteenth century. The drinks were very fashionable and desirable, but not everyone received them so warmly. During this period many books and pamphlets were published discussing the effects of these drinks on the body and their medical uses. These works were authored by medical men, but also others, including travellers and merchants. They discussed how these drinks could affect the human body; some argued that the drinks could prove detrimental to health. Meanwhile, others held that tea and coffee were miracle cures, capable of curing everything from gout to scurvy. While the works usually focussed on the impact of the beverages on any human body, they also devoted some consideration to how they impacted upon the gendered body.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, a strong association between femininity and tea developed, as Beth Kowaleski-Wallace and other historians have already shown these associations were not always positive.[1] Contemporary authors of the tea and coffee literature also differed in their opinions of whether tea was good for the female body. The anonymously authored Essay on The Nature, Use, and Abuse of Tea in a Letter to a Lady (1722) warned against female tea-drinking. In this text the author presented complex medical arguments based on contemporary iatrochemical and iatromechanical medical systems which "proved" that tea significantly damaged women's ability to bear children and led to miscarriage or the birth of unhealthy babies. The author casts female-tea drinking in a wholly negative light and blames women for any misfortune that may befall the English nation because of their failure to bear strong male children who can serve as soldiers or contribute to the economy.

In contrast in his Discourses on Tea (1750) Thomas Short said that tea could improve the strength of the female body, which men achieved through more frequent physical exercise and their ability to drink more red wine. Little is said by any of the contemporary literature on the effect of tea on the male body, though many men appear to have enjoyed the beverage. Samuel Johnson, for instance, considered himself a "shameless" tea drinker. Only the Essay, which was deeply biased against tea, warned that tea could also cause men to become infertile. However, this concern does not seem to have been echoed by other authors.

Unlike tea, coffee was widely seen as beneficial medicine for the female body and reproductive system, authors like the physicians Benjamin Mosely and Daniel Duncan, praised coffee’s abilities to induce menstruation, ease menstrual pain and to combat certain kinds of infertility caused by problems in the womb. However, when women consumed coffee solely for recreation or enjoyment, some cultural commentaries were less positive, as seen in J.S. Bach's Coffee Cantata where the female character, the coffee-addicted Liesgen, is satirised.

Herr Vater, seid doch nicht so scharf!/ Father sir, but do not be so harsh!

Wenn ich des Tages nicht dreimal/ If I couldn’t, three times a day,

Mein Schälchen Coffee trinnken darf,/ be allowed to drink my little cup of coffee

So werd ich ja zu meiner Qual/in my anguish I will turn into

Wie ein verdorrtes Ziegen brätchen/a shrivelled-up roast goat.

From J.S. Bach’s Coffee Cantata, composed c.1732-1735 (Translation:

However, historical images of the coffeehouse have led us to think about coffee mainly as a man's drink in the eighteenth century. Strikingly, most medical authors were particularly anxious about male coffee consumption. One of the earliest texts printed on the physiological effects and medical uses of coffee in England was a translation of The nature of the drink kauhi (1659) by Da’ud ibin `Umar Antaki, a sixteenth-century Syrian physician. Antaki warned that coffee could ‘asswageth lust’ in men; later authors also went on to warn that the drink could make men impotent and infertile. Many contemporaries praised coffee and the coffehouse as stimulants and sites for intellectual development. In the medical literature however, there was a not inconsiderable concern about coffee’s effects on male conversation and mental function, as it seemed to distract its drinkers and lead them to talk in an illogical manner (something anyone who has overdone it on the caffeine today will also recognise!). The satirical Women’s Petition Against Coffee (1674) for instance complained that coffee had caused men to become effeminate and ‘usurp on our Prerogative of Tatling’. In other words, coffee led men to gossip rather than getting on with any important business, thus posing a threat to government and economy.
Image: A Morning Frolic, or the Transmutation of Sexes, c.1780.

In the print A Morning Frolic the male and female characters have exchanged clothes, the woman stands, active and masculine, while the male figure is portrayed as seated, passive and feminine. Between them on the table sits a coffeepot, pointing to the disruption that this new drink was thought to be causing to the gendered body, and thus to traditional gender roles. Therefore, by examining medical interpretations, we can find another perspective on gender anxieties that pervaded in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England. Central to this were fears surrounding reproduction and the health of the population, as well as a concern with the intellectual capacities of the elite members of the male sex who controlled the economic and political life of the country. Despite the objections of some texts in the tea and coffee literature, members of both genders across society continued to consume these drinks, helping them to develop and sustain the popularity that they enjoy today.

So, the next time you pick up your favourite caffeinated beverage, take a moment to savour its history and the sweet taste of rebellion against traditional gender systems.

[1] Beth Kowaleski-Wallace, ‘Tea, Gender and Domesticity in Eighteenth-Century England’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 23 (1994), pp.131-145. 

Mona O'Brien is a Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholar at the University of Glasgow who works on social history and the social history of medicine and illness in the early modern period. Her PhD thesis explores social responses to the French pox in early modern Germany. She tweets from @monaob1
More information about Mona’s research can be found at:



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