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How tea saved lives in 18th century England

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Credit: Pixabay/CC0 public domain

Drinking tea can have several health benefits. There seems to be a concoction for everything from sleep to inflammation to digestion. However, in 18th century England, drinking tea may have saved someone’s life, and it probably had very little to do with leaves and herbs.

For CU Boulder economics professor Francisca Antman, it’s all about the water. In particular, boiling the water and eliminating bacteria that can cause diseases such as dysentery, better known during the Industrial Revolution as ‘bloody flux’.

It’s not a new idea: the link between boiling water for tea and a drop in deaths across England. However, a quantitative method to test it is.

Antman analyzed data from more than 400 parishes in England and looked at death rates before and after tea became popular and affordable across the country. The research has been published in the journal Review of Economics and Statistics.

She spoke with CU Boulder Today about her research and its contemporary impact on conversations about clean water, health and human behavior.

This data is centuries old. Why look so far back?

The nice thing about this institution is that it takes place before we know the importance of clean water. There is evidence that tea became affordable to almost everyone in England in the late 1980s, during the Industrial Revolution.

Population density is increasing, cities are really growing, people are becoming more densely packed together. That should actually be a period in which we see much increasing mortality. But ultimately we see this surprising drop in mortality, which can be explained by the introduction of tea and, more specifically, by boiling water.

How did you analyze so much data?

The analysis compared areas based on water quality, which was to be inferred. That measure of water quality is based on geographical characteristics, such as the number of flowing water sources or altitude.

In areas where you expect that water quality should have been inherently worse, you see a greater decline in mortality when tea comes. It is not that the water itself is pure or meets the drinking water standards we have today. But what you see is that the areas that should have benefited more are also benefiting more as they start boiling water for tea consumption.

I’m so lucky to stand on the shoulders of giants here: the historical demographers Anthony Wrigley and Roger Schofield who collected this data. Very few places in the world have this kind of data, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the monumental efforts of demographers and historians who went through parish registers in England and essentially put together these data sets that I was then able to analyze.

What’s the modern takeaway here?

I am a development economist and labor economist. We know that water is important not only for health, but also for people’s economic and social lives. We know that there are still many developing countries where access to clean water, especially for women and girls, is still a struggle.

Identifying the causal impact of clean water on people’s lives can be challenging because we already know it is so important, but quantifying it can be difficult.

This study is an example of people who changed their behavior, not because of outside influences or suggestions about healthy habits or clean water, but simply because they wanted to drink tea. It’s a great example of how a population adopted healthy behaviors without anyone on the outside trying to change the culture or customs, but because they wanted to adopt the practice from within.

It is something we can look at and possibly try to emulate when considering future interventions aimed at improving health in general, including in relation to water.

More information:
Francisca M. Antman, For Want of a Cup: The Rise of Tea in England and the Impact of Water Quality on Mortality, Review of Economics and Statistics (2022). DOI: 10.1162/rest_a_01158

Magazine information:
Review of Economics and Statistics