The Man Who Poured the World a Cup of Tea

Friday, 16 November 1888 - Glasgow, Scotland

Today I was on a merry chase, but I managed to track down one of Glasgow’s favorite sons. Thomas Lipton was on his way to the train station, but I managed to have a short conversation with him which I recorded. The University of Glasgow back in the 27th century will be pleased, I’m sure.

Sir Thomas Lipton
Ask anyone--especially an American--who Thomas Lipton was and they will tell you he was a sea captain who invented tea bags and instant tea. Wrong on all three accounts. His contribution to the culture of tea is far more important than that. Lipton made tea available to all.

Sir Thomas Lipton is a true rags to riches story. He was born in Glasgow in 1848 to Ulster Scots who had immigrated back to the land of their ancestors. Poor but hard working, they struggled to keep open the small grocery shop they owned. Thomas quit school when he was thirteen to help in the store, then decided to make his own way in the world.

When he was fourteen he became a cabin boy on a line between Belfast and Glasgow. He took his money from this job to buy a ticket to America. Once there he took on several jobs and eventually ended up in A.T. Stewart's huge dry goods store in Manhattan. Stewart focused on presentation and variety and knew the importance of advertising. After five years, Thomas returned to Glasgow to show his parents everything he had learned in America.

In 1871 he opened his own store that offered good products at reasonable prices. The store was always clean, well stocked and well lit. He also wasn’t afraid to use any advertising scheme he could come up with. From his mother he learned to wisdom of buying eggs and milk directly from the farmers, rather than through a middleman. He worked hard, putting in 18 hour days, sleeping under the counter.

Soon Thomas had several stores in Glasgow. He branched out to the rest of Scotland and then the British Isles. I believe he currently has 300 stores! He is a very rich man. He will soon be even richer.

Thomas doesn’t just buy from local farmers. He bought a meat packing plant in Omaha, Nebraska in America, as well as several farms. This year he has decided to branch out into what he will be remembered for the most--tea.

Tea, once the luxury of the rich, is now drunk by the middle-class. But Thomas has not forgotten his working class roots and also sees an untapped market. By buying his own tea plantations in Ceylon, he can provide decent tea at ridiculously low prices. Thanks to him everyone will be able to afford to drink tea every day.

But he won’t stop there. He will also open a packaging plant in New Jersey to sell directly to the Americans, making tea popular again. (The barbarians had thrown the last batch in Boston Harbor back in 1773.) Lipton is will no longer just supply tea to his own stores; he will supply it to the world.

Perhaps Thomas Lipton’s greatest failure became his greatest advertising campaign. He had been in love with ships since boyhood and loved sailing. For thirty years he tried to win the America’s Cup in his yacht “Shamrock” and every time he failed. But he had fun and was such a good sport, America fell in love with him. They will present him with a specially designed cup for "the best of all losers". He will also be inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of fame in 1993. For decades “Captain Lipton” was featured on the Lipton tea packages in America.

Nurse on deck of Lipton's yacht
(This is no pleasure cruise.)
In World War I his yachts will be used to transport medical staff and supplies to Serbia to fight a typhus epidemic that killed thousands of civilians. Despite the danger, Thomas will go himself to lend aid. By now, Thomas was a celebrity, and he used that to bring Serbia’s plight to the attention of the world. Serbia loved him because he didn’t expect to be given red carpet treatment, which they were in no position to give. Modest lodgings and peasant food was good enough for him. This was just one of many charitable works he performed throughout his life. In 1897 he contributed £25,000 to provide dinners to the poor during Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. He will be knighted in 1898 for his charitable works.

Next year Thomas will move his office to London, after his parents pass away. But he will never forget Glasgow that gave him his start. He will leave much of his fortune to her. when he dies at the ripe old age of 83 in 1931. He will be buried in Glasgow per his request.

Sir Thomas Lipton cheerfully losing yet
another America's Cup race
So let’s all raise a cup to the man who brought tea to the deprived working class and to foolish Americans who didn’t know what they were missing--to Sir Thomas Lipton!

Sir Thomas in a Lipton Tea commercial
(All right, Sir Thomas was never in a telly commercial, but he certainly would have if he could have.)

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