Mystery of Samuel Pepys’ Tea Discovery Remains Unsolved After 200 Years

A 34-piece David Clayton George I miniature silver tea service, London, circa 1720, sold for $11,250 at a November 2015 Heritage auction.

“And afterwards I did send for a cup of tea (a China drink) of which I never drank before, and went away.” – Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday, 25 September, 1660

By Jim O’Neal

In 1812, Scottish historian David Macpherson (The History of European Commerce with India) quoted the above tea-drinking passage from Samuel Pepys’ diary.

It’s the first record of an Englishman drinking tea.

This was an extraordinary thing to do, primarily because in 1812, Pepys’ diaries were still unknown! Although they resided in the Bodleian Library, the main research library of the University of Oxford – and had been available for inspection – no one had ever looked into them.

Or so it was thought.

Even if someone had taken a peek, they were written in a private code that had never been deciphered. How Macpherson managed to find and translate this passage, from six volumes of dense and secret scribbling, is beyond knowing. Not to mention what inspired him to look there in the first place.

Pepys (1633-1703) was born in London. He went to Cambridge, where he attended Trinity Hall and then earned a degree from Magdalen College. Not long after, he was employed as a secretary in London by Sir Edward Montagu, the 1st Earl of Sandwich.

He started his diary on Jan. 1, 1660, and continued it until 1669. It is through Pepys’ eyes that we have a remarkable view of everyday life in the middle of the 17th century. This is a highly unique first-person account of the Great Plague, the coronation of King Charles II, the Second Anglo-Dutch War, and the Great Fire of London.

Each time I think of this last event, I’m reminded of the great architect Sir Christopher Wren, who designed 52 churches, including the magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral, and his epitaph:

“Here in its foundations lies the architect of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived beyond ninety years, not for his own profit, but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you.” This inscription is also inscribed (in Latin) on the circle of black marble on the main floor of the dome.

So, we know who rebuilt London. Now if we could just solve the puzzle of Samuel Pepys’ diary and David Macpherson.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

It’s a Long Journey From Sensible Footwear to Curly Wigs for Men

English naval administrator Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) initially scoffed at the idea of wigs for men – but ultimately came around.

By Jim O’Neal

In September 1991, two German hikers were on a glacier in the Italian Alps when they spotted a body protruding from the ice. It was an unusual discovery since glaciers tend to grind up everything in their path. But this body was protected from contact and oxygen (saponification) and the flesh transmuted into a waxy substance called adipocere, similar to soap.

Radiocarbon dating confirmed the body (a male) was 5,000 years old and in this degree of preservation, anthropologists literally had a time-traveler body to study, along with his possessions. His “shoes” were of interest since they were less slippery on ice, less likely to cause blisters and more protective against cold than modern footwear.

At some later time, humans became more concerned about fashion than function. Many times they chose style or pricey alternatives over utility. That is even more true today as we strive to exaggerate our status in curious ways.

Some of the more amusing examples include the magnificent collar ruffs known as piccadills in the 16th century. As they grew larger and larger, they made eating more impossible and necessitated the fashioning of special long-handled spoons so diners could get food to their lips.

When buttons arrived in 1650, people could not get enough of them as they were arrayed in decorative profusion on the backs, collars and sleeves of coats. Relics of this are the pointless buttons on jacket sleeves near the cuff. (While in London, I had bespoke suits made on Savile Row and the tailor was adamant that four buttons and button holes on each sleeve was de rigueur.)

But perhaps the most egregious example was the 150 years of men wearing wigs. Old faithful Samuel Pepys duly recorded his initial apprehension, but then was proud of being in the vanguard of men’s fashion, despite worrying about the plague if human hair was used. In addition to being hot, scratchy and uncomfortable, wigs required weekly maintenance. They were sent to have their buckles (French bouclés, meaning curls) reshaped on heated rollers and possibly baked in an oven (fluxing).

This evolved into a daily snowfall of white powder, primarily from simple flour, and then into colors, followed by scenting and even multi-colors.

When the wheat harvest failed in France in the 1770s, there were riots when starving people learned that flour was being diverted to wigs instead of baked into bread. “Let them eat …?”

And then suddenly wigs went out of style faster than belted polyester suits in the 1970s. Wigmakers petitioned George III to make wig-wearing by men mandatory. The king refused, so it must have been on one of the days he was not “mad” in the literal sense.

Women continued to wear even more extravagant wigs and added elaborate artificial moles (mouches). I predict that someday, high-heeled shoes will join the corset, but it will not be before the craze for collector purses, stored in air-conditioned cubicles, subsides or Jimmy Choo starts discounting to match Amazon.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

King Charles’ Baker Reminds Us that Small Things Can Lead to Huge Events

This “Elephant & Castle” 1/2 Crown, showing British King Charles II and minted 15 years after the Great Fire of London, realized $35,250 at a September 2014 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Thomas Farynor, baker for England’s King Charles II, usually doused the fires in his oven before going to bed. But, on Saturday, Sept. 1, 1666, he forgot and at 2 a.m. was awakened by fire engulfing his house.

Farynor lived on Pudding Lane near Thames Street, a busy thoroughfare lined with warehouses that ran along the river wharves. It was typical of London streets … very narrow and crammed with houses made of timber.

As the flames spread and people awoke and started scrambling to escape, nearby Fish Street Hill exploded into fire as piles of straw were ignited.

Samuel Pepys climbed to the top of the Tower of London to get a better view. At 7 a.m., he described how an east wind suddenly turned into a gale and whipped the fire into a raging conflagration. The Great Fire of London was out of control.

As early as 1664, writer John Evelyn had warned of the danger of such an event due to so many open fires and furnaces in such a “wooden … and inartificial congestion of houses on either side that seemed to lean over and touch each other.” Everyone was too busy to worry about it.

There were fire engines for emergencies, but they were rudimentary and privately owned. There was no official London fire brigade. In the chaos, any pumps that did get into service were hampered by large crowds clogging the streets dragging furniture in a vain attempt to salvage valuables.

The other strategy was fire breaks, which consisted of pulling down buildings with huge iron hooks and quickly clearing the debris to create barren areas. However, the fire was moving so quickly that it blazed through the debris before it could be cleared.

Back on the Tower of London, Pepys observed “an infinite great fire headed right at London Bridge.”

London Bridge spanned the Thames River and was an extraordinary structure … lined with homes and shops separated by a passageway only a few yards wide. The fire attacked the bridge greedily, leaping from rooftop to rooftop as people frantically fled.

By Sunday evening, boats carrying people swarmed across the river where onlookers lined the shore mesmerized by the enormous blaze.

On Monday, a powerful wind drove the fire through London. Houses, churches and buildings were all consumed as the blaze continued to rage. An East India warehouse full of spices blew up and the smoke carried the smell of incense across the city.

Finally, by Wednesday, the wind subsided and 200,000 Londoners looked in astonishment at their great city, now turned to ash … 13,000 houses, 87 churches, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Royal Exchange, Customs House, all city prisons and the Great Post Office were all destroyed.

The mystic Anthony Wood said, “All astrologers did use to say Rome would have an end and the Antichrist come, 1666, but the prophecie fell on London.”

All because a baker forgot to put out his oven.

We all know what Smokey the Bear would say.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].