The Extraordinary Story of the Woman’s Tea Company

by Mary Goljenboom

When we want a cup or a package of tea, we can choose from varieties that come from all over the world, like white tea from China—once served to the emperor—or kukicha green tea from Japan. Tea buyers shop throughout the world for the flavors and fragrances that will entice and satisfy customers.

Like her modern counterparts, Susan A. King searched abroad for high-quality, distinctive tea when she and Ellen Louise Demorest went into the business. In 1870, King took the very unusual step of traveling unescorted to Japan and China.

The pair brewed a plan to import tea from Asia and sell it wholesale to female-operated shops around the country. The name of their business, the Woman’s Tea Company, was literal: Demorest served as president, and King served as treasurer. All the stockholders and directors were female. The company had $500,000 in capital, an enormous sum. Both King and Demorest had made fortunes in other industries; this venture was a way for them to help other women gain financial security and the independence that accompanies it.

King and Demorest were well-known names in New York which allowed the plan to coalesce quickly. Demorest and her husband ran one of the top fashion businesses. Her tissue-paper patterns, used by home sewers, sold in shops across the country and in the Demorests’ own emporium in New York City. They also published a magazine, Demorest’s Monthly Magazine and Mme. Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions. Their nationwide connections with merchants and shopkeepers, as well as ads and articles in the magazine, were great resources for introducing and promoting the company and its tea to customers and vendors.

Susan King was a successful New York City real estate investor. She was a woman skilled in negotiation and finance—which she would need in the import business. For expert advice on shipping, King, no doubt, turned to her brother-in-law, a sea captain named Frederick Gorham.

In the middle of 1870, just as newspapers were publishing the first accounts of the Woman’s Tea Company, King’s plans were well underway. She secured letters of introduction and credit from New York banking and merchant companies to their overseas offices. She then crossed the country to San Francisco, arriving in July. There she did the bulk of her banking, obtaining letters of credit from the Bank of California to the Oriental Bank Corporation, Asia’s dominant financial institution. On August 1, 1870, fifty-three year old Susan King departed on the steamship Great Republic for Yokohama, Japan.

Arriving about three weeks later, she set to work. She met exporters headquartered in the port and sampled teas. She met with the American ambassador as well as Sir Harry Smith Parkes, the British ambassador, who had long experience in the region. “The English Ambassador said it wouldn’t be safe for me to go out in the country, and wanted me to take an escort. But I said what would anybody want with an old woman like me?” King told a correspondent for the Boston Post. Against Parkes’ advice, King hired locals to take her into the countryside to visit growers and sample their teas—she wanted to make an informed decision about the product that her company would sell. King then sailed to China and, again, hired natives to take her to growers. She later told reporters that she’d been farther into China’s interior than any other Westerners, including missionaries.

In China, King found pure, sun-dried leaves that the Woman’s Tea Company marketed as Mandarin Tea. “I got three hundred tons,” she told the Boston Post. In April 1871, the merchant ship Adelaide Carleton, carrying a cargo of tea and one passenger, Susan King, sailed out of Hong Kong for New York.  The ship reached  the city four months later, on August 18.

The Women’s Tea Company was in business.

Over the next months the tea was packaged, distributed, and promoted. A beautifully-appointed shop was set up in Madame Demorest’s Emporium on Broadway in New York City. The company sold only Mandarin Tea and packaged it in three sizes. Ads listing businesses carrying the tea began to appear in newspapers from Boston, Cleveland, and Omaha.

The wide variety of tea available to us today may help to explain company’s failure to thrive. WTC carried only one tea and it was very different from what most consumers were used to. Consumers had to develop a taste for it (although it was very popular in immigrant Chinese communities, according to King). In addition, Mandarin Tea, at $1.50 per pound, was expensive. The company cut costs by dealing directly with producers, employing its own agent in China (a woman), and purchasing its own merchant ship, the Madam Demorest (captained, on its maiden voyage in 1872, by Fred Gorham, King’s brother-in-law). But company’s initial strong sales weakened and the company eventually closed.

Susan King told a reporter in 1870 “If women can govern empires, as they do in China and England in our day, and did in Spain, Austria, Russia, and Prussia, in the olden times, they ought to have enough talent to sell a pound of tea.” She was right, of course.

 

Sources

Newspapers
Daily Alta California, 6 November 1870, 9 Nov. 1872, via California Digital Newspaper Collection
Boston Daily Globe, 28 June 1885, via ProQuest Historical Newspapers
Troy (NY) Daily Times (reprint of Boston Post article), 17 April 1872, via fultonhistory.com
New York Tribune, 18 Aug. 1871, 12 and 14 October 1871, via Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers from the Library of Congress
Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Jan. 1873, via National Library of Australia’s Trove newspaper db
Omaha Bee, 27 Feb. 1873, via Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers
New York Sun, 11 June 1870, via Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers
Cleveland Daily Herald, 14 May 1872, via Gale Cengage 19th Century US Newspapers

Harper’s Bazaar, 23 March 1873, via ProQuest American Periodicals
Demorest’s Monthly Magazine, Sept. 1870, via Google Books

US Census records for 1870 and 1880, via Ancestry.com
Passenger List of the bark Adelaide Carleton, 18 Aug. 1871, via Ancestry.com

 

Copyright 2014 Ferret Research, Inc.