Leaves & Beans of History: The Industrial Revolution

Posted on November 15, 2017 Blog | | No comments

The first Industrial Revolution (1750 – 1850) took place in Great Britain and changed both the world and how we lived in it. It allowed us to create metal marvels that served us well in times of both war and peace. We pushed the boundaries of creativity, industry, and the human spirit all in the name of progress and profit. However, those who made such feats possible were often laid low by such causes and they, and their wonders, may have been lost to us had it not been for the infusion of a few leaves.

All the Live Long Days

Up until the beginning of the revolution Great Britain was an agricultural economy. The majority of people lived on farms, worked the land, and produced clothes, tools, and other necessities in their own homes. These goods were expensive and slow to be made since they were all crafted by hand or simple machines. However, with inventions such as the spinning jenny, the steam engine, and puddling furnaces, more and larger factories began to appear and inexpensive goods poured out of them. People soon began flocking to them and the cities for jobs since they could not compete with the speed and production levels of the factories. 1

Mid-life crises are hard on everyone.

The upper and newly created middle classes benefited from the outpour of inexpensive goods, but the poor and working classes who made the goods in the factories often lived in squalor. City populations swelled and there were soon more people than jobs or proper housing. Urban and industrial areas where people lived near the factories were overcrowded and polluted, resulting in unsanitary and abhorrent living conditions. By 1830 the average life expectancy for those living in urban areas over 100,000 was 29. 2 Smog from burning coal was pumped into the air almost around the clock, and sewage and human waste poured into the streets and the Themes. The river was the source of drinking water for many people at this time and several outbreaks of cholera occurred between 1831 and 1854, resulting in over 52,000 deaths. 3

Damned monkey’s paw

In order to even afford these horrible living conditions men, women, and children had to work 12 to 16 hours a day, 6 days a week. Pay at the factories was low, the machinery was dangerous, and breaks were short if given at all. This meant the average factory worker did not have enough time or money to acquire anything that resembled a healthy diet. In this age before refrigeration and mass food production, fresh vegetables, fruit, and unspoiled meat were expensive and difficult to come by. Since beer was cheap it became a main staple of sustenance and calories for the working class. Most workers started their day with a bowl of beer soup. However, this led to a work force that was not only malnourished, but also intoxicated for the majority of the day. It’s estimated that London (which by 1800 had grown to the largest British city with a population of 1 million) consumed 200 million quarts of beer, 50 million quarts of wine, and 10 million quarts of rum annually. 4 If the revolution was going to endure the people behind it needed help.

Enter tea. With advances in transportation and decreased taxes the once private luxury of the aristocracy became available to the masses. Coffee was around during this time too, but as early as the 1730’s coffeehouses had become associated with political intrigue, male debauchery, and women were banned from them (unless they were employed there). Coffee would never leave, but since tea was cheaper, easier to make, and tea gardens had become places where entire families could gather it became the dominant drink of London and eventually all of Great Britain. 5

Also a few of the colonies

The new hot beverage of the working class also brought with it many needed benefits. First, it gave the workers a non-alcoholic option and offered temporary relief from their hunger pangs. The addition of milk and sugar was also a preferable source of protein and calories. Second, the caffeine helped workers stay alert through the long hours of monotonous and dangerous labor in the factories. Third, the warm drink might have offered the poor and downtrodden a brief but desperately needed mental escape from their current conditions.

However, the most critical benefit tea may have provided was in regards to health. When people made tea they boiled the water, often for long periods of time. Boiling the water pasteurized it, which killed any protozoa, bacteria, or viruses that may have been in it. 6 Although this obviously did not prevent the cholera outbreaks of the mid-1800s it’s highly likely it prevented an even larger number of people from contracting not only cholera, but typhoid and dysentery as well. A large workforce was critical to maintaining production levels and multiple pandemics in the densely-populated cities, especially in the early years, would have crippled the revolution. 7

So while tea may not have singularly saved the Industrial Revolution, it definitely played an integral role in the lives of the people who made it possible. Even if it only kept them on the production lines longer, and their spirits a bit higher.

Matt Foster is the Wholesale Trainer at Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Company in St. Louis Missouri. Barista Intermediate and IDP certified, he spends his days teaching and his nights reading and writing. He’s also competed on the regional and national levels of the US Brewer’s Cup. His other interests include intriguing cocktails, delicious food, adorable dogs, and traveling the world to find all those things to put his face in.

Contact at mattf@kaldiscoffee.com | Follow on Instagram


1. Industrial Revolution
2. Wyatt, Lee T. The Industrial Revolution. Greenwood Press, 2009 pg 62
3. Cholera and the Thames
4. Wyatt, Lee T. The Industrial Revolution. Greenwood Press, 2009 pg 62
5. Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. Basic Books, 1999 pg 14
6. New York State Department of Health
7. Tea and Progress