“I always fear that creation will expire before tea time” — Sydney Smith

May 13, 2011

Little things bother me.

I am troubled, for example, by the tags on Lipton tea bags. They’re flimsy and problematic. The design is ingenious enough. The tab is part of the envelope in which each tea bag nestles. In this respect, Lipton has it all over most brands, whose tea bags lie naked in the box. The envelope is perforated so that the user can detach the part that serves as the tag, but the envelope is made of such thin paper that the staple doesn’t grip the string very well, and as often as not the tag slips off. And that means that the whole string often winds up in the cup when the water is poured.

Most other brands — Wegmans and Twinnings, for instance — while eschewing the envelope, make the tags out of sturdier stuff.

It has occurred to me to call Lipton’s 800 number about this, but I had such an unsatisfying experience about a decade ago when I called Nabisco to complain about the way graham crackers are wrapped that I don’t have the heart to try it again.

There are two reasons why I don’t just drink another brand of tea. One is that Lipton tea is the only kind I like — at least, as compared to other ones that I have tried. Some people (you know who you are) sniff at this, implying that there is something pedestrian about Lipton and, therefore, about me, but that doesn’t move me. I have, to borrow a phrase from Jefferson Davis, “the pride of having no pride.”

The second reason I don’t switch brands is loyalty — not so much to the brand as to the salesman. When I was a kid, I was a devoted fan of Arthur Godfrey, who was a radio and television mogul back in the Bronze Age. Lipton was one of his sponsors and probably the one the public most associated with him.  He pitched the tea and Lipton’s packaged soup. In those days before the highly produced commercials we see now, the host of a show often was the one who sold the products. Godfrey used to kid the sponsors; he might have been the first one who dared to do it. When he did his spiel for Lipton’s chicken soup, he used to assure the audience that a chicken had at least walked through the concoction.

Godfrey was troublesome. He was talented and bold as a showman, but he also was kind of full of himself, and many people my age and older might remember him best for having fired Julius La Rosa and several other regular members of his variety show cast — without warning, on live television.

Nobody’s perfect. I made a commitment to Arthur Godfrey that I would drink Lipton tea and no other, and I have been more loyal to him than he was to Julie La Rosa.

Besides my one-sided deal with Godfrey, I might as well mention that I’m not happy when I don’t find a prominent portrait of Sir Thomas Lipton on the box of tea. Lipton, who founded the brand, was one of the great self-made businessmen of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. I identify with him because he was a grocer, as were my father and grandfather. Of course, we had one store and Lipton eventually had about 300.

When Lipton got into the tea trade, he broke the established wholesaling patterns so that he could sell the product at low prices to the working poor. Lipton tea boxes used to feature a large picture of Thomas Lipton with a tea cup in his hand and a yachting cap on his head – an image that has been relegated to a tiny logo. Lipton was a yachting enthusiast and tried five times with five different yachts to win the Americas Cup. What he finally won was a special trophy honoring him as the “best of all losers.”

Lipton also did a lot to assist medical volunteers in Europe during World War I, including putting his yachts at the disposal of organizations transporting medical personnel and supplies and traveling himself to Serbia to show his support for doctors, nurses, and soldiers at the height of a typhus epidemic. Twinnings? I don’t think so.

Sir THOMAS LIPTON

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2 Responses to ““I always fear that creation will expire before tea time” — Sydney Smith”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    The thought of you calling Nabisco to discuss those wrappers is hilarious and satisfying – hilarious because I’ve already imagined how that discussion went, and satisfying because who among us hasn’t cursed those things?

    I’m not a tea drinker, but I’ve had enough experience to know you’ve nailed the problem. Lipton’s envelope is good, especially if you want to carry around a few teabags in your purse or briefcase, but it is fragile. The tags on Constant Comment (my personal favorite in the old days, before they got stingy with their spices) were great. Worst of all are the organic/herbal/earth-conscious sorts that have no tag or string at all and have to be spooned out of the cup.

    By the way, I enjoyed the Raggedy Ann & Andy post. I still have the Ann that my mom made for me. She’s in fine shape for 62 years, although she did get a new pinafore and pantaloons for Christmas two years ago. Hers were looking a little ratty.

  2. charlespaolino Says:

    I love that you still have that doll — and that you’re keeping her fashions up to date.

    When the Nabisco episode occurred, I was still in the newspaper business, and I wrote a column about it. On the day that column appeared, I was working at my desk when I became conscious of a person standing in the doorway of my office. I looked up and saw the general manager, a dour character who virtually never spoke to me in more than a grunt. The idea flashed through my mind that he was going to ask if I didn’t have anything better to write about. Instead, he said, “You know, I agree with you about those Graham crackers. In fact, my wife keeps a list in the kitchen called ‘People Mark is going to call some day,” and Nabisco is on that list.”

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