Photos: How Tea Was Picked and Processed in the Late 19th Century

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After they were plucked from the plant, leaves were withered and dried to remove moisture and then sorted, graded, weighed, and packed.

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Tea is the second-most consumed beverage in the world. I've always been intrigued by the intensive process it takes to transform the plant into the dried leaves used for brewing. Here are some photos from the National Anthropological Archives that document different stages in the traditional processing of black tea. These photos were taken in India during the late 19th century by Colin Murray of the photography studio Bourne & Shepherd.

First, tea leaves are plucked from the Camellia sinensis plant. The leaves are then withered to reduce water content and rolled to start oxidation. Oxidation is the chemical process where oxygen is absorbed, and the leaves' oxidation level determines the type of tea it becomes. Black tea is fully oxidized, oolong tea is partially oxidized, and green and white tea are not oxidized.

After the leaves for black tea have been fully oxidized, they are dried to remove excess moisture. Black tea leaves are then sorted by size and graded accordingly. If you've ever heard terms such as Orange Pekoe and Flowery Pekoe, they refer to the grade of black tea. Finally, the tea leaves are weighed and packed.


This post also appears on the Smithsonian Collections Blog, an Atlantic partner site.

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Rose Love Chou lives in the Washington, D.C., area and works as a reference archivist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Anthropological Archives.

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