How Prohibition & World War II Made The South Fall in Love with Sweet Tea

Photo: Iced Tea, courtesy of Melissa Doroquez
Photo: Iced Tea, courtesy of Melissa Doroquez

Growing up in the Southland, I have taken several things from my childhood for granted that may seem strange and foreign to people just a few hundred miles to the north or west.  I was astonied the first time I ever traveled to New York State and asked for a sweet tea and the young waitress gave me a puzzled look as though I had asked for some strange oddity.  It seems not everyone shares our affinity for all things sweet!

Being from the South, just about everyone I know drinks “sweeeeet teeeee” year round — and typically the more sugar contained in said drink, the better.

As I stare out my window onto the snow covered back porch, there’s a part deep inside me that simply cannot wait until warmer weather comes — once it does, I have no doubt that I will be setting returning home from work in the evening to discover a large pickle jar containing a fresh batch of sun tea… requiring only a few cups of sugar and ice cubes.

Folks in the South have had a relationship with tea that dates back to the George Washington Administration.  During this time, wealthy plantation owners imported green tea plants and grew them near Charleston, South Carolina.

Today, most historians agree that the State of South Carolina is the only US State to have ever grown tea commercially.

In the years ahead, its exotic nature made tea a rare delicacy reserved largely for the wealthy and its popularity in the South among the most formal gentry became well documented throughout the 1800s.  Often, elaborate  green tea “punch parties” were held in southern cities such as Charleston and Savannah.  These tea punches were often heavily spiked with liquor and in many cases evolved into annual events of revelry.

In the years ahead, it was common for tea in the South to be served at room temperature and laced with various alcohols.

The first sweet tea recipe was not published until 1879 when it appeared in a community cookbook in Virginia.  The recipe called for green tea, since nearly all tea consumed during this period was green tea.  The text advocates that in order to make tea more appealing to the tastes, “a squeeze of lemon” should be added, writing that lemon “will make this delicious and healthful, as it will correct the astringent tendency.”

As sugar became more readily available to common people, more and more southerners began seasoning their tea with sugars rather than alcohol.

This transition was excelled in 1920 when an amendment to the United States Constitution banned the sell of alcoholic beverages in the nation.  In the South, where it had been common for individuals to spike their tea for nearly a century, people began seeking alternatives to beer, wine and liquor and sugar in their tea filled this void for many.

By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, Americans in the South had discovered that their tea actually tasted better free from alcohol and continued the practice even when it became legal to go back to their old ways.

The final change to Southerners’ love affair with sweet tea came the moment the first Japanese torpedo entered the bay at Pearl Harbor.

The following day, on Dec. 8, 1941, the United States Congress declared war on the Empire of Japan and immediately nearly all green tea imports ceased.  The overwhelming majority of green tea producing regions were either directly under Japanese control at the time or German and Japanese submarines patrolling the areas made their safe transport impossible.

In response, Americans were forced to purchase an item they had once considered inferior, black tea.  Black tea was grown in in British-controlled India and grew in popularity as an acceptable substitute throughout the war.

Americans came out of World War II with far bigger items to contemplate than why they had switched from green tea to black tea a handful of years earlier.  Tasked with rebuilding the planet, thwarting a third World War and retooling an entire wartime economy, the nation gave little thought as to the color of their tea and in the years ahead, approximately 99% of Americans were drinking black tea.

With the Baby Boom in full swing many southern families found tea to be an affordable mealtime drink that was both sweet and caffeinated, but a fraction of the price of Coca-Colas and other sodas.

Today, tea seasoned with sugar is largely a southern delicacy and though many northern restaurants are beginning to offer “sweet tea” these drinks are often sweetened with raspberries or other natural sweeteners.

In 2003, supposedly as an April Fool’s joke, the Georgia House introduced a bill making it a “…misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature” for a restaurant to not sell sweet tea.  The bill never went to a vote.

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