McCants Anne E.C. (2008) “Poor consumers as global consumers: the diffusion of tea and coffee drinking in the eighteenth century”, Economic History Review, 61/S1, 172-200.
The 17th century saw the introduction of “foods would entirely eclipse the centrality of bread in the rituals of western sociability” (p.172). The idea of a consumer revolution may sound far fetched since the industry lacked the power to reshape the structure of demand and the colonial trade only accounted for 17% of the Dutch international trade at its peak in the 18th century (or 1% of GNP of western Europe and 10% of gross investment; p.173). So were colonial goods (tea, coffee, chocolate, tobacco and sugar), generally considered a significant part of the Industrious Revolution, as important as they are commonly thought to be?
Colonial products for all
Tea and coffee consumption appeared in Amsterdam in the 1610s but remained marginal. At the end of the 1600s they still accounted for a mere 4.1% of the VOC’s total sales. Yet by 1730, they represented 25% and had become the (close) second most important sale category for the company (while in the mean time the total sales themselves had increased by 158%). The revenues in Amsterdam for colonial beverages were 1312 greater in 1740 than in 1669.
Tea and coffee prices are difficult to evaluate over the period but anecdotal evidence suggest that the price of tea may have decreased by 97% from the 1680s and 1720s (p.176). As the quantities traded were very limited, supply shocks were common and prices were highly volatile. The price of coffee started stabilizing and decreasing after 1711 when the first harvest occurred on Dutch-controlled Batavia.
This greater affordability made coffee consumption a daily habit even for the poorest (p.177). According to post mortem inventories none of the workers of Weesprose owned tea- or coffee-related items in the 1700s, this figure had risen to nearly 100% thirty years later. (p.179). This tread bears witness to the increasing importance of fashion (imitation of the elite lifestyle by the lower social strata) in the late 17th and early 18th century.
Tea, coffee and society
Chocolate consumption had started earlier but its spread was slower and less pervasive. Coffee came later than tea but was soon as common (p.183). Tea and coffee were even more common than beer (except for single males) in poor households. So colonial beverages could hardly be considered luxuries after 1750 (p.187). Yet tea and coffee consumption receded slightly after 1750 (p.189), which is consistent with the weaker real wages observed during the period (p.191).
An evidence of the importance of tea and coffee for the common people comes from the fact that tea and coffee wares were amongst the very last items to be pawns in case of financial problem. They were deemed necessary for everyday life (p.192). The fact that numerous cups and pots were old and chipped suggest a rather intensive use (p.193).In the post mortem inventories, petty debts related to the purchase of tea and coffee indicates that these products were bought regularly and in small quantities for immediate consumption, very much like the most basic foodstuffs.
The rise of colonial retail shops in Amsterdam went along with a corresponding increase in consumption. There were already thirty-two coffee houses in the city in 1700 (p.196) and their number kept rising during the century (p.197). Another telling consequence was the impressive rise of the share of the VOC over the period (p.199).