Sometimes the most unassuming objects can take on powerful meaning. A small, sealed glass bottle of tea, displayed at the American Antiquarian Society, is a case in point. Donated in 1840 by the Reverend Thaddeus M. Harris (1768-1842), a Unitarian clergyman in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and a member of AAS, the tea is one of the most compelling objects for visitors touring the library. Less than five inches high, the mold-blown, pale aqua bottle filled with tea leaves is wrapped at its mouth with twill tape and sealed with red sealing wax. Its attached paper label reads: “Tea Thrown into Boston Harbor Dec. 16, 1773.”
The role its donor played in gathering the leaves the morning after the critical confrontation on December 16th is explained in an adjacent, typed label. Harris would have been just five years old when he reportedly gathered the tea leaves carried by the tide to Dorchester Neck Flats. Perhaps he witnessed the event from the shores on the evening prior. Thousands had gathered to watch the fifty men loosely disguised as Native Americans breaking open with hatchets the wooden chests of tea and throwing the tea bales overboard.
A former label for the tea (now archived and shown here to the right) written in the hand of AAS librarian Samuel Foster Haven in the 1860s (as deduced by the expert eye of Curator of Manuscripts Tom Knoles) may have replaced Harris’s original label. Its text is remarkably similar to that of the label signed by Harris on another bottle of tea he gave to the Massachusetts Historical Society where he served as librarian until his death (see below). The AAS label (recently reunited by AAS conservators—the two fragments had years ago been filed in separate locations in the library’s holdings) reads: “Tea that was gathered on the shore at Dorchester neck the morning after the destruction of the three cargos. Dec. 17, 1773. From Thaddeus Mason Harris, DD.” Certainly without the story connecting the tea to this iconic event in America’s history the object would not hold the same cultural power. As an eyewitness to what was generally called the destruction of the tea, this ordinary object has been imbued with extraordinary meaning through the act of display. Harris knew that what was becoming known as the Boston Tea Party by the time he gifted the tea was being embraced by a new generation of Americans, and he wanted to make sure his story was part of a constructed public memory of the conflict.
Harris was familiar with the value of objects that had a “peculiar claim to preservation,” as he described the Mather family coat of arms and whetstone, objects donated to AAS by Hannah Crocker Mather, to whom Harris wrote a letter of acknowledgment in 1814 as the Society’s corresponding secretary. Perhaps Harris saw the donation as a way to make his own claim to preservation, but he also knew that the Tea Party had gained new interest among Americans as death notices for Tea Party participants had become more frequent in the press.
Having spent many years preparing a manuscript of “the first peopling of America,” Harris considered himself a historian and frequently commemorated historic events in his sermons. By the 1830s he had gained a reputation as the source of knowledge about the Revolution, particularly as it pertained to Dorchester Neck. “Tell me what the Dorchester people did in the revolutionary struggle—and particularly South Boston. . . Anecdotes illustrative of the character or doing of men, whose deeds have not been recorded, will be particularly valuable,” wrote Dr. Samuel Van Crowninshield Smith, who was convinced that Harris was the only person from whom he could obtain these facts as he prepared for his July 4, 1835, address for South Boston, the principal celebration for the city. This was the year that George Robert Twelves Hewes, celebrated by the Boston press as a rare survivor of the Tea Party, traveled to Boston in his late nineties to participate in Fourth of July celebrations. The recognition of Hewes as a survivor of the Tea Party may have inspired for many the preservation of physical relics. Harris was not the only one to place bottles of tea in institutions to preserve a connection to this historic event; examples survive at The Old State House and the Peabody Essex Museum, among others. A huckster in Chicago even put himself and a vial of tea on exhibit as survivors of the Tea Party—and charged admission!
The lack of physical trauma to the bottle of tea lends itself well to the perception of the Tea Party as a non-violent act, though the destruction that led to the tea’s salvage bears resemblance to the acts of mob violence surrounding this event. A political cartoon published in New York by H.R. Robinson circa 1837 (a copy of a cartoon published in London in 1774) shows the Bostonians “paying” the exciseman, who is already tarred and feathered and is being forced to drink tea as the Tea Party takes place in the background (right). Numerous images of the destruction of the tea were reprinted or created during the 1830s and 40s when public interest in the event was revived. One of the most familiar is Nathaniel’s Currier’s 1846 lithograph, shown below.
No blood was shed (or at least no one died) on December 16, 1773, but from that rebellious act a few relics survive as remembrance of this iconic event. For Harris, the tea thrown into Boston Harbor seems to have signified an act of patriotic rebellion and a reminder of how fragile, like the ephemeral tea itself, “peace” was. It could be harbored within a glass bottle, but that too could break. Some during Harris’s lifetime saw the event as destructive and lawless, but by the time Harris donated his tea it had become an event to commemorate as a cornerstone of the Revolution.
If the tea leaves were indeed salvaged by the young Harris, he apparently kept them until close to the end of his life when the veil of secrecy surrounding the destruction of the tea had been lifted and the event had become romanticized as an act of national patriotism. Harris’s manuscript on the first peopling of America remained unpublished at the end of his life, but his story as it relates to this signature event is remembered through his decision to place the encapsulated tea in two revered institutions for safekeeping and memory-making well into the future.
Editor’s note (3/2/2018): Since this post was written, further research and discussion has illuminated the fact that, although the twentieth-century exhibit label accompanying the tea says that Harris gathered the tea on Dorchester Neck himself, the remaining textual evidence never actually states that. Samuel Foster Haven’s note uses the passive voice, simply stating that it “was gathered,” and it came to AAS “from” Harris, but it never says that Harris was the one to gather it. Furthermore, Harris was actually living in Charlestown at the time and later moved to Dorchester. It seems more likely that one of Harris’s Parishioners gathered the tea and later gave it to him once he had earned a reputation as a local Revolutionary War historian. Likewise, the bottle post-dates the event by several decades, suggesting that Harris bottled it for display purposes. These corrections are intended to further ground the story of the tea and its history as a commemorative object, but in no way prove or disprove its authenticity.