Tag Archives: Boston Tea Party

Turkey Figs

I was researching the major tea importers and purveyors in Salem in light of the upcoming anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, but another commodity kept popping up in the sources: turkey figs. I didn’t look at any customs records, but newspaper adverts both before and after the Revolution provide evidence of large imports of Turkey figs in Salem, and presumably a corresponding demand. I’m wondering if this is a by-product of what we now know was a very vibrant trade in fish and wine between Salem and the Iberian peninsula? It’s clear that figs were used for both medicinal and culinary purposes, although some purveyors favored one utility over the other. The very entrepreneurial apothecary Philip Godfrid Kast, for example, who had prosperous businesses in Boston, Salem, and Haverhill, clearly marketed them as a medicine in the 1770s and 1780s (though it also looks like he is providing Salem cooks with many of the ingredients for a Christmas “figgy pudding”).  This was nothing new to me—I’ve spent the last year reading early modern medical manuals for the book I’m working on and figs are always listed as one of the few “useful” fruits by Elizabethan authors—and the prescription of figs for various cough syrups and digestive tonics continued into the twentieth century. I presume New Englanders were eating lots of figs too but I can’t find any recipes in the early American cookbooks, and apparently Thomas Jefferson brought back a cutting of this particular variety, now called Brown Turkey Figs, only when he returned from Paris in 1789.

FIg Kast Collage

Turkey FIgs philip-godfrid-kast-trade-card (1)

Fig Collage 1804 1829Philip Godfrid Kast’s advertisements for Turkey figs in the 1770s and his 1774 trade card, American Antiquarian Society; Figs for sale in Salem, 1804-1829.

Not only do I not know what is happening to all those cases of figs being sold in Salem in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; figs are also difficult to identify as a culinary commodity in English cooking before the twentieth century. The classic “figgy pudding” seldom has any figs in it as the word was just a synonym for “plum”, denoting any dried fruit. Figgy pudding originated as a steamed savory potage and evolved into its sweeter, more Dickensian ideal over the early modern era and into the nineteenth century. Of course the Victorians invented Christmas as we know it, and the recipe for figgy pudding of Queen Victoria’s own chef, Charles Francatelli, contains no figs at all. In America, fig cultivation seems to have become centered on the South and California (particularly the valley surrounding Fresno) and so growers marketed a variety of fig recipes, encompassing everything from ices to jams to whips to “pickles”, and the use of figs in syrups for coughs and constipation continued into the twentieth century.

Fig PicMonkey Collage

Figs WellcomeJ.C. Forkner Fig Garden recipes, 1919 & California Fig Syrup Co. advertisement, Wellcome Library.


Tea Party Tempest

One of the most interesting jobs of the historian is figuring out when and why an occurrence becomes an EVENT.  Lots of things that happen never rise to the level of “history”, but those things that do often get embellished over time.  A great example is the Boston Tea Party.  As the anniversary of this big event occurs this week (December 16), I thought I’d take a break from the holidays and get back to history.

As I’m not an American historian I asked my question when did the Boston Tea Party become the Boston Tea Party to a number of experts, both in person and on the web.  There seems to be a general consensus that the event was almost immediately recognized as extraordinarily significant but that the actual term doesn’t appear until decades after the Revolution, when its last participants (particularly George Hewes ) began recording their memoirs.  Apparently the first historians of the American Revolution did not want to herald an event involving the destruction of property, but in 1826 newspaper reminiscences started to use the term “Tea Party” or “Tea-Party”, and it was consequently adopted by historians. (Apparently the first use of the term referred to the participants rather than the event).  There are comprehensive discussions and comments about every aspect of the Tea Party, and all the other pre-Revolutionary agitation in Boston, at the great blog Boston 1775.

Across the Atlantic, the historical significance of the Tea Party was realized relatively early.  Just several years into the Revolution, the German engraver Carl Gottlieb Guttenberg published The Tea-Tax Tempest, or the Anglo-American Revolution (1778), an adaptation of an earlier political print by John Dixon which was itself adapted by the British caricaturist William Humphreys as The Tea-Tax-Tempest, or Old Time with his Magick-Lantern (1783).  In both we have allegorical figures representing the world and Europe looking on at an exploding teapot and agitated Americans.

Tea Tax Tempest caricatures at the online exhibition “America in Caricature, 1765-1865”, Lilly Library at Indiana University.

With the close connections between France and America during the American Revolution, it was only natural that Europeans emphasized the American rebellion of the 1770s when the French Revolution broke out in 1789.  The Tea Party becomes a precedent, or a first act, in what may be a universal revolution.

The History of North America, E. Newberry, London, 1789.  Library of Congress.

So the occurrence of 1773 is clearly recognized as an important event well before the turn of the nineteenth century, a realization that is reinforced by the success of the American Revolution and the beginning (and drama) of the French.  But the tempest doesn’t become the “party” until James Hawkes’ Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party with a Memoir by George R.T. Hewes (1834), and it takes off from there, in both print and image. The rest is history.

Covers of James Hawkes’ Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party (1834) and H.W. McVickar’s children’s book The Boston Tea Party (1884), both Library of Congress.


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