It’s international women’s day and we’ve decided to celebrate today by remembering and calling attention to some of the women whose ambition, hardship and success have impacted and revolutionised a global industry.
Mary Tuke, also known as “The Queen of Confectionary”, is our first extraordinary woman. Born in 1725 in England, Tuke was amongst the first tea merchants to build a chain of stores in the tea and chocolate industry. With women having almost no legal rights or identity at the time, it took Tuke seven long years to finally be able to obtain her business license. Tuke went on to establish her chain of stores amidst jail threats, fines, and vehement opposition from those against a woman running a business. However, Tuke came out on top as she built a reputation of quality, affordability, and put York on the map the world’s “chocolate city” with her tea stores.
Oura Kei, an esteemed businesswoman born in 1828 in Nagasaki, Japan, was pivotal in creating the Japanese tea export market. Kei exploited Admiral Perry’s push to open the Japanese markets and used her connections in Nagasaki’s trading community to discover a potential market for tea. Collecting tea samples, she sent them to America, England, and Arabia through the Dutch firm Textor & Company. From doing so, by the age of 30, in a country where women had minimal rights, Kei had built a new industry. Because of this, many refer to this strong-willed woman as “O-Kei,” her first name preceded by the honorific “O” which is used to show respect.
Another noteworthy pair of women are Roberta Lawson and Mary McLaren. These ladies from Milwaukee, Wisconsin are the ones responsible for the invention of the teabag, or as it was known as at the time, a “teal leaf holder”. Many are under the impression that Thomas Sullivan was the originator for the concept of the teabag in 1908, when in fact it was Lawson and McLaren who first filed for the patent for their mesh fabric “tea-leaf holder” in 1901 and was approved in 1903. This design offered the convenience of pre-measured, single-serve portions and continues to be a standard practice for the presentation of tea in the modern day.
These women were all innovators and crucial in solving problems with the tools they had available. While we have only mentioned four exceptional women here, there are a plethora of phenomenal women who we could recognise for their contribution to the tea industry and continue to do so to this day.