Reading the leaves




If tracking down the family tree is your hobby of choice, perhaps you’ve visited the Mid Atlantic Region Archives. Otherwise, the local branch of the National Archives, tucked away in a corner of the Federal building at 9th and Chestnut, next to the post office, has likely escaped your notice.

Though it hardly registers on the tourist trail, in its own behind-the-scenes way the Archives shines just as bright a light on our nation’s history as the Constitution Center or Independence Hall. Visited by genealogists, numismatists, demographers and sundry students, this repository of federal archival records from 1789 to the 1970s—50,000 cubic feet of them—still yields the occasional surprise, even for the archivists who work there.

“Hot, Iced and Bagged”

“There’s no way you can inventory everything,” says Archives Director Leslie Simon. “It’s always a discovery process and with every researcher who comes here we come up with something new.”

That’s what happened a few months ago when Robin Morris, a Penn graduate student in history, began looking through the archives during a summer internship. Since tea is Morris’s passion—she was a tea buyer before going back to school to get her master’s degree—she searched for records having to do with its history.

The results of her digging can be seen in a small but carefully crafted exhibit in the entrance hall of the Archives called “Hot, Iced and Bagged in Article 1: Tea and the Constitution.”
Tea was big business in 17th- and 18th-century Philadelphia, and Morris tells the story of the city’s busy trade with China through ships’ manifests, watercolors of workers rolling and packing tea, a set of porcelain Chinese export tea cups and a few rare items such as a Grand Chop, which, despite its splendid name turns out to be a rather prosaic certificate showing that duties had been paid on a tea shipment.

Opium for tea

What makes this little exhibit of more than passing interest, and what kept Morris going as she delved deeper into the archives, is the scandalous story that emerges about a much honored Philadelphian who made his fortune importing tea.

As Morris tells it, her first few days at the Archives were “rather depressing.” Though she found boxes and boxes of shipping records, she wasn’t finding a “hook” for her exhibit. Then, she says, “I found Stephen Girard’s name over and over.” To learn more about his connection to the tea trade, Morris walked a few blocks to the American Philosophical Society and learned, in a dissertation by a former Penn student, that the revered banker and philanthropist had been actively involved in the opium trade, selling the drug to the Chinese and using the profits to purchase tea.

In a letter to his seafaring employees, Girard wrote, “If a guard should visit the ship to make a search for the forbidden drug, a small trifle will bribe them.”

Five cups a day

In the exhibit, Morris clarifies the difference between green tea, the fresh young leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant wok-fired to prevent oxidation, and black and oolong tea, where the leaves are allowed to oxidize. The latter method, points out tea expert Diana Rosen in the booklet that accompanies the exhibit, was developed as a way to preserve the tea during the months-long trek across the ocean.

Iced tea, points out Morris, has been around for more than a century. Though it was popularized at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, recipes for iced tea already appear in 19th-century cookbooks, calling for such ingredients as sugar, cream and claret along with the tea leaves.

Morris, who says she has been “obsessed with tea” from the age of three, routinely drinks five cups a day, with milk. In Philadelphia, she shops for tea (always loose, never bagged) at the House of Tea at 4th and Bainbridge, Tea Leaf in the Reading Terminal Market and Gourmet of Olde City, the only place she can find her favorite tea, Taylors Yorkshire Gold.

For more information on the National Archives Mid Atlantic Region, call 215-606-0100 or visit the website at

Originally published on December 8, 2005