Online: Object of the Month
The Party before the Boston Tea Party
Curator of Art
Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.
This porcelain punch bowl was owned by the Benjamin Edes family of Boston prior to the American Revolution. On the afternoon of the Boston Tea Party, Edes entertained some of his fellow conspirators, serving them from this bowl.
Tea and "Indians"
In May 1773, the Parliament of Great Britain passed the Tea Act, legislation designed to help the sales of the (British) East India Company while, at the same time, re-asserting Parliament's authority in the face of American colonial resistance to any outside regulation or taxation. Even with the new tax of three-pence per pound, East India tea could compete in price with the tea being smuggled into the colonies. In Boston and elsewhere in the American colonies, the Tea Act was seen as yet another in a series of encroachments upon American liberties and an attempt to favor selected merchants with connections to the royal government--the consignees of the East India tea--at the expense of other merchants, including those who smuggled tea. As news of the impending arrival of East India tea spread in the summer and fall of 1773, a campaign of political agitation against the tea tax and intimidation of the tea consignees began.
The first of three ships carrying a load of East India Company tea sailed into Boston Harbor on 28 November 1773. For the next seventeen days, the "Body of the People" of Boston and surrounding communities demanded the resignation of the East India Company tea consignees and the return of the tea, refusing to allow it to be unloaded. When all their appeals and demands failed, the citizens took matters into their own hands. On the afternoon of 16 December 1773, a group of men assembled in the parlor of Benjamin Edes' house on Brattle Street. Edes, who was closely involved in the deliberations surrounding the arrival of the tea, had recruited his guests to help plan and carry out an audacious attack on the property of the East India Tea Company. While waiting for evening to fall, the party enjoyed Edes' hospitality--which his son Peter recalled in a letter to his grandson:
I recollect perfectly well that in the afternoon preceding the evening of the destruction of the Tea a number of gentlemen met in the parlour of my father's house how many I cannot say as...I was not admitted to their presence. my station was in another room to make punch for them in the bowl which is now in your possession and which I filled several times-- they remained in the house till dark...
Edes and his guests made their way to his office on Queen Street to disguise themselves as Indians before joining others on Griffin's Wharf, where the three ships carrying tea were docked. Young Peter followed the group and related the action to his grandson:
The Indians worked smartly, some were in the hold immediately after the hatches were broken open, fixing the ropes to the tea chests, others were hauling up the chests, and others stood ready with their hatchets to cut off the binding of the chests, and others cast them overboard.
Well-organized and methodical, within a period of three hours, the "Indians" had disposed of three hundred and forty-two chests containing over 92,000 pounds of tea, much to the admiration of John Adams, whose diary entry for 17 December notes, "This is the most magnificent Movement of all. There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity, in this last Effort of the Patriots, that I greatly admire."
Who was Benjamin Edes?
Bookseller, printer, publisher, journalist, and patriot, Benjamin Edes (1732-1803), in partnership with John Gill (1732-1785), maintained the most radical of Boston newspapers in the period leading up to the Revolution. From 1755 to 1775 they published the Boston Gazette from their press "next to the Prison in Queen-Street." In addition to the newspaper, the pair printed religious tracts, annual sermons, scientific lectures, almanacs, and advertising broadsides. In the 1760s, as the local response to the Crown's efforts to tax and control her colonies intensified, Edes and Gill began to publish political works and broadsides that expressed the colonial point of view. Their spirited denunciation of the Townshend Acts led to an ineffective demand in Parliament in October 1767 that the publishers of the Boston Gazette be tried for libel. Their sympathies earned them appointments as printers to the House of Representatives in 1762 and 1770-1775. Edes, the more politically active partner, was a member of the Loyall Nine--the group that eventually became the Sons of Liberty.
During the Siege of Boston, Gill remained in town (where he was imprisoned for a month for treason and sedition) while Edes removed his press to Watertown. There he continued printing the Boston Gazette and Province paper currency until he returned to Queen Street in October 1776, after the British evacuated Boston. The firm Edes & Gill continued through 1779, when Edes established a new firm, Benjamin Edes & Sons (Peter and Benjamin, Jr.). Peter Edes left to set up his own firm in Connecticut in 1784, and Benjamin, Jr. left ten years later. Peter said of his father's later years:
If my father had been like other men he might have been worth thousands on thousands of dollars, but he preferred the liberties of his country to all...by placing, like many others too much confidence in the stability of the Continental money, he died a poor man.
In 1799 the elder Benjamin Edes set up a press in his home in Temple Street, and with the aid of his daughter, performed job printing until his death in 1803. His punch bowl descended to his great-grandson, Benjamin Edes, whose widow, Mary Cuming Edes, presented it to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1871.
Alcohol in the American Colonies
Consumption of alcohol in 18th century America is estimated by modern historians to have been 3.7 gallons per capita. From birth to death, alcohol formed an important part of social gatherings in the colonies, and punch (the name and libation imported from India) became the equivalent of tea amongst genteel company. Classic punch had five ingredients: in addition to rum, it generally included sugar, spices, and the juice of fresh limes, lemons and sometimes, oranges. A number of implements were useful in the making of punch, including china punch bowls, silver punch strainers, spoons and ladles. In addition to the Edes family punch bowl, the Society owns a silver punch strainer made by silversmith William Breed out of silver captured at Cartagena in 1741, and a recipe for milk punch from Benjamin Franklin.
Sources for Further Reading:
For an in-depth discussion of the issues surrounding the Boston Tea Party, see our website "The Coming of the American Revolution."
View tea, purported to be from the Boston Tea Party.
Allison, Robert J. The Boston Tea Party. Beverly: Commonwealth Editions, 2007.
Conroy, David W. In Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Franklin, Benjamin V., ed. Boston Printers, Publishers and Booksellers: 1640-1800. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.
Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1871-1873. Boston: 1873. p.174-181.
Rice, Kym S. Early American Taverns: For the Entertainment of Friends and Strangers. Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1983.
Silver, Rollo G. Benjamin Edes: Trumpeter of Sedition. New York: Bibliographical Society of America, 1953.
Warden, Gerard B. Boston 1689-1776. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970.