Iced Tea History – Sweet Tea History

Sweet Tea


There are two traditional iced teas in the United States – Iced Tea and Sweet Tea.  The only variation between them is sugar.

Southerners swear by their traditional sweet ice tea and drink it by the gallons.  In the South, ice tea is not just a summertime drink, it is served year round with most meals.  When people order tea in a Southern restaurant, chances are they will get sweet ice tea.

Outside of the southern states, iced tea is served unsweetened or “black,” and most people have never even heard of sweet tea.


My Favorite Sweet Tea Recipes:

Andra’s Sweet Tea Recipe

Juanita’s Southern Ice Tea Recipe


History of Iced Tea and Sweet Tea:


18th Century

1795 – South Carolina is the first place in the United States where tea was grown and is the only state to ever have produced tea commercially.  Most historians agree that the first tea plant arrived in this country in the late 1700s when French explorer and botanist, Andre Michaux (1746-1802), imported it as well as other beautiful and showy varieties of camellias, gardenias and azaleas to suit the aesthetic and acquisitive desires of wealthy Charleston planters.  He planted tea near Charleston at Middleton Barony, now known as Middleton Place Gardens.


19th Century

1800’s – English and American cookbooks shows us that tea has been served cold at least since the early nineteenth century, when cold green tea punches, that were heavily spiked with liquor, were popularized.  The oldest recipes in print are made with green tea and not black tea and were called punches.  The tea punches went by names such as Regent’s Punch, named after George IV, the English prince regent between 1811 until 1820, and king from 1820 to 1830.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, American versions of this punch begin to acquire regional and even patriotic names, such as Charleston’s St. Cecilia Punch (named for the musical society whose annual ball it graced), and Savannah’s potent version, Chatham Artillery Punch.

Iced tea’s popularity parallels the development of refrigeration:  The ice house, the icebox (refrigerator), and the commercial manufacture of pure ice, which were in place by the middle of the nineteenth century.  The term “refrigerator” was used for the first patented ice box in 1803 and were common in the mid 19th century in the United States.


1839 – The 1839 cookbook, The Kentucky Housewife, by Mrs. Lettice Bryanon, was typical of the American tea punch recipes:

“Tea Punch – Make a pint and a half of very strong tea in the usual manner; strain it, and pour it boiling (hot) on one pound and a quarter of loaf sugar. (That’s 2 1/2 cups white sugar) Add half a pint of rich sweet cream, and then stir in gradually a bottle of claret or of champaign (sic). You may heat it to the boiling point, and serve it so, or you may send it round entirely cold, in glass cups.”


1879 – The oldest sweet tea recipe (ice tea) in print comes from a community cookbook called Housekeeping in Old Virginia, by Marion Cabell Tyree, published in 1879:

“Ice Tea. – After scalding the teapot, put into it one quart of boiling water and two teaspoonfuls green tea.  If wanted for supper, do this at breakfast.  At dinner time, strain, without stirring, through a tea strainer into a pitcher.  Let it stand till tea time and pour into decanters, leaving the sediment in the bottom of the pitcher.  Fill the goblets with ice, put two teaspoonfuls granulated sugar in each, and pour the tea over the ice and sugar.  A squeeze of lemon will make this delicious and healthful, as it will correct the astringent tendency.”


1884 – This may be the first printed recipe using black tea, which has become so universal today, and could also be the earliest version of pre-sweetened iced tea, the usual way of making it in the South today.  Mrs. D. A. (Mary) Lincoln, director of the Boston Cooking School, published Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book: What to Do and What Not to Do in Cooking in 1884.  On page 112, there it is: iced tea, proving that the drink was not just a Southern drink.

“Ice Tea or Russian Tea – Make the tea by the first receipt, strain it from the grounds, and keep it cool. When ready to serve, put two cubes of block sugar in a glass, half fill with broken ice, add a slice of lemon, and fill the glass with cold tea.”


1890 – Professor Lyndon N. Irwin, of Southwest Missouri State University and a member of the St. Louis World’s Fair Society, found an article from the September 28, 1890 issue of the Nevada Noticer newspaper regarding the 1890 Missouri State Reunion of Ex-Confederate Veterans.  This article clearly states that iced tea had been around prior to1890.  The article states the following:

“The following figures will convey some idea of the amount of provision used a Camp Jackson during the recent encampment. There were 4,800 pounds of bread, 11,705 pounds of beef, 407 pounds of ham, 21 sheep, 600 pounds of sugar, 6 bushels of beans, 60 gallon of pickles, and a wagonload of potatoes. It was all washed down with 2,220 gallons of coffee and 880 gallons of iced tea. The committee expended $3,000, a little in excess of the amount subscribed, for the entertainment of the old soldiers.”

– The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, also called the Columbian Exposition, had a concessionair that grossed over $2,000 selling iced tea and lemonade.

The Home Queen World’s Fair Souvenir Cookbook – Two Thousand Valuable Recipes on Cookery and Household Economy, Menus, Table Etiquette, Toilet, Etc.  Contributed by Two Hundred World’s Fair Lady Managers, Wives of Governors and Other Ladies of Position and Influence, compiled by Miss Juliet Corson includes a recipe for variations on serving iced tea.

– The Enterprising Manufacturing Co. of Pennsylvania distributed its popular recipe booklet called The Enterprising Housekeeper by Helen Louise Johnson. In the recipe booklet, they advertise their popular ice shredders and its many uses. One use was “for your iced tea.”


20th Century

1900s – After 1900, iced tea became commonplace in cookbooks, and black tea began replacing green as the preferred tea for serving cold.  The preference for black over green tea in an iced beverage came with of import of inexpensive black tea exports from India, Ceylon, South America, and Africa.


1904 – It was at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis that iced tea was popularized and commercialized (not invented).  Due to the hot summer of 1904, people ignored any hot drinks and went in search of cold drinks, including iced tea.  Because of this, it changed the way the rest of Americans thought of tea, thus popularizing iced tea.

Most historians mistakenly give credit to Richard Blechynden, India Tea Commissioner and Director of the East Indian Pavilion, as being the creator of ice tea at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.  In the East Indian Pavilion at the Fair, Blechynden was offering free hot tea to everyone.  Because of the intense heat, it was soon realized that the heat prevented the crowd from drinking his hot tea.  Blechynden and his team took the brewed India tea, filled several large bottles, and placed them on stands upside down – thus allowing the tea to flow through iced lead pipes.  This free iced tea was very much welcomed by the thirsty fair goers.  After the fair, Blechynden took his lead pipe apparatus to New York City, offering free iced tea to shoppers at Bloomingdale Brothers Department Store, demonstrating iced tea is a desirable summertime drink.


According to the book Beyond The Ice Cream Cone – The Whole Scoop on Food at the 1904 World’s Fair by Pamela J. Vaccaro:

“Both hot tea and iced tea appeared on most restaurant menus at the Fair – at the Barbecue, Fair Japan, the Old Irish Parliament House, the Louisiana and Texas Rice Kitchen, Mrs. Rorer’s East Pavilioin Cafe, and so on. It is highly unlikely that all these restaurants jumped on the bandwagon of Blechynden’s “new idea,” and scurried to the print shops to have their menus reprinted!

What really “stirs the pot” is that “Richard Blechynden” was listed as an official concessionaire (No. 325) “to serve tea in cups and packages” at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 – 11 years before the one in St. Louis. The financial records from the exposition do not list any ledger entries for Blechynden – which raises the question of whether he actually showed up or was just late with his report. But, if he had been there, it would have been odd that he would not have realized that his product was already being sold in hot and cold versions. It would likewise be odd that, in the 11 intervening years, he would have been totally oblivious to the drink’s inclusion in cookbooks and on menus.”


1917 – By World War I, Americans were buying special tall iced tea glasses, long spoons, and lemon forks.  By the 1930s, people were commonly referring to the tall goblet in crystal sets as an “iced tea” glass.


1920 to 1933 – The American Prohibition (1920-1933) helped boost the popularity of iced tea because average Americans were forced to find alternatives to illegal beer, wine, and alcohol.  Iced tea recipes begin appearing routinely in most southern cookbooks during this time.


1928 – In the southern cookbook, Southern Cooking, by Henrietta Stanley Dull (Mrs. S.R. Dull), Home Ecomonics Editor for the Atlanta Journal, gives the recipe that remained standard in the South for decades thereafter.  It is a regional book that very much resembles the many “church” or “ladies society” cookbooks of that era.

“TEA – Freshly brewed tea, after three to five minutes’ infusion, is essential if a good quality is desired. The water, as for coffee, should be freshly boiled and poured over the tea for this short time . . . The tea leaves may be removed when the desired strength is obtained . . . Tea, when it is to be iced, should be made much stronger, to allow for the ice used in chilling. A medium strength tea is usually liked. A good blend and grade of black tea is most popular for iced tea, while green and black are used for hot . . . To sweeten tea for an iced drink-less sugar is required if put in while tea is hot, but often too much is made and sweetened, so in the end there is more often a waste than saving . . . Iced tea should be served with or without lemon, with a sprig of mint, a strawberry, a cherry, a slice of orange, or pineapple. This may be fresh or canned fruit. Milk is not used in iced tea.”


1941 – During World War II, the major sources of green tea were cut off from the United States, leaving us with tea almost exclusively from British-controlled India, which produces black tea. Americans came out of the war drinking nearly 99 percent black tea.


1995 – South Carolina’s grown tea was officially adopted as the Official Hospitality Beverage by State Bill 3487, Act No. 31 of the 111th Session of the South Carolina General Assembly on April 10, 1995.


21st Century

2003 – Georgia State Representative, John Noel, and four co-sponsors, apparently as an April Fools’ Day joke, introduced House Bill 819, proposing to require all Georgia restaurants that serve tea to serve sweet tea.  Representative John Noel, one of the sponsors, is said to have acknowledged that the bill was an attempt to bring humor to the Legislature, but wouldn’t mind if it became law. The text of the bill proposes:

(a)  As used in this Code section, the term ‘sweet tea’ means iced tea which is sweetened with sugar at the time that it is brewed.

(b)  Any food service establishment which served iced tea must serve sweet tea. Such an establishment may serve unsweetened tea but in such case must also serve sweet tea.

(c)  Any person who violates this Code section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.



Comments from readers:

I stumbled upon your page about the history of iced tea… pretty interesting!  I liked it except for one thing… you say “Outside of the southern states, iced tea is served unsweetened or “black,” and most people have never even heard of sweet tea.”

Not quite true! In Canada, sweetened iced tea is the standard and people drink it at almost every meal and year round, like the southern states.  No self-respecting Canadian would drink unsweetened iced tea… that’s not iced tea, it’s just black tea, cold.  This is why many unsuspecting Canadian tourists have a rude shock in store for them when they order iced tea in a northern state.  Thanks for the read!  – Rachael Frey (12/18/06)


Sweet iced tea in the American South tends to be a regional item.  Sweetened iced tea was the norm when I lived in Georgia.  In Louisiana if you ask for “iced tea” it will be unsweetened.  The only restaurants in Louisiana that tend to serve iced tea sweetened are the regional chains like Cracker Barrel, and they have learned that sweetened iced tea isn’t as popular in Louisiana so, they offer both styles.  BTW I really enjoyed your website on iced tea! – Tom Mungall (12/04/07), Baton Rouge, La, USA



1904 St. Louis Worlds Fair – The Iced Tea Question, by Lyndon N. Irwin.
Beyond the Ice Cream Cone – The Whole Scoop on food at the 1904 World’s Fair, by Pamela J. Vaccaro, Enid Press, St. Louis, 2004.
Boston Cooking School Cook Book, by Mrs. D.A. Lincoln, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1996 Reprint.
GA: Food Establishments Must Serve Sweet Tea!, Political State Report, Tuesday, April 1, 2003.
Georgia General Assembly, House Bill 819.
I’ll Have What They’re Having – Legendary Local Cuisine, by Linda Stradley, Globe Pequot Press, 2002.
Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, NC, Features Works by Pierre-Joseph Redout April Issue 2002, from Carolina Arts Magazine, by Shoestring Publishing Company, Bonneau, SC.
South Carolina General Assembly, 111th Session, 1995-1996.
Steeped in Tradition – Sweetened or not, Iced tea is Southerners’ drink of choice, by Linda Dailey Paulson, writer for Atlanta-Journal Constitution newspaper.
Taste of Luzianne, Luzianne Tea.


Beverage History    Deep South    Food History    Southeast    Tea Drinks   

Comments and Reviews

8 Responses to “Iced Tea History – Sweet Tea History”

  1. Jim

    Interesting – I had to look this up. I’m in my seventies, born in Mississippi, raised in TN back in the 40’s, 50’s. I never heard of “sweet tea” until sometime in the late 80’s or 90’s. Raised by my parents and for a short while (WWII), co-parented by my Alabama-born grandparents, my grandmother and mother and every restaurant I went to offered or sold “ice tea”. THAT is what was on the menu and that is what one ordered. THEN the consumer could sweeten it to their taste. BUT for the first 35-40 years of my life, I never heard anyone offer or order “sweet tea”. For the last 30+ years I’ve lived in California where it is not so popular, yet every time I go back to visit relatives in the Southeast they’re ordering “sweet tea”. I’m thinking it may also be a millennial thing.

  2. Mike J

    Definitely not just a millennial thing. We had sweet tea before I was born in SC. My grandmother would call it the table wine of the south.

    • Nancy

      I like that reference, “Table wine of the South”

  3. Seraphima Shagoury

    It IS a Millenial thing outside of the Confederate Seaboard States……green tea was not known of and not used after WW2 except in oriental cuisine, especially in the states outside of Califonia. Green tea did not return until the 21st century when every health food nerd decided to hack every known tea available to mankind for new sources of American profit. I grew up in Texas where iced tea with lemon was on every table at every meal except breakfast. I made iced tea for my father daily. I grew up drinking it instead of soda, instead of energy drinks, never out of plastic bottles. Doctors advised drinking it before utrasweet or splenda were invented, and before the “antioxidant” craze ever hit – and people were thinner and more content back then than they are now. It is a US-wide misnomer now that the only name for this iced tea was “sweet tea”. The misnomer was propagated after corporate companies like Arizona Iced Tea, Burger King, McDonalds, Popeyes, various Southern food franchises and indie bottled tea companies (like Peace Tea, Honest T…..etc etc etc ad nauseum!) decided to show America that Lipton and Nestea, the major labels of grocery store black tea drinks, were ho-hum and “so yesterday.” Since the notion of sugar makes everything attractive, and makes the consumer addicted, SWEET TEA began getting added as part of fountain drink offerings to drive through customers of fast food and the misnomer has stuck ever since, unless you walk into a place such as a sandwich show where you see dispensers of “sweet tea” and “unsweet tea” side by side. Now people are convinced that unsweet tea is only for diabetics that can’t handle the sugar – that’s how brainwashed America has become by corporate giants. Ok Georgia and Virginia, ’nuff said, because you now have the whole tea story as it unfolded the past 50 years.

  4. Joshua

    My grandmother taught me how to make sweet tea. I’m not sure where she learned to make it though, she grew up in Alabama but her family was from Germany, they came to america in 1918, made money smithing silver and cooking traditional German food in New York and saved until they could afford to move because they didn’t like living in a city and wanted a farm again like they had in Germany. Anyway they bought about 250 acres in northern Alabama and my grandmother remembers her grandmother making sweet tea but since they had no power it was a luxury drink only served when they could get some ice. Still she remembered the sugar was always stirred in while the tea was hot. My father’s side of the family has been drinking sweet tea for as long as anybody can remember, apparently it’s just a traditional drink in the Appalachian Mountains but was considered a luxury drink only wealthy people could afford for a long time. I know you typically only over sweeten it like McDonalds tends to do if you intend to put alcohol in it, most families don’t make their sweet tea that sweet. It is normally made with the idea that ice will melt in it though so you have to make the tea slightly stronger and sweeter because the ice will melt. I also know that we did used to make sweet tea every day when I was a kid to be served with dinner at least, it goes good with everything.

  5. Alison

    I grew up in North Carolina and the term “sweet tea” wasn’t used until maybe the 1990’s or 2000’s. It was just iced tea, or “sweetened” and “unsweetened” if there was a choice (usually only in restaurants that catered to a senior crowd.) I remember a student at my high school who transferred from California making a huge deal about how iced tea in NC was always sweetened… that she’d never heard of doing that until she moved. Ice tea was served at family gatherings (Easter, Thanksgiving etc) or sometimes my mom made it during the summer… but it was not a daily thing, though I had friends that always had a pitcher in their fridge. And the only brand to use is Lipton 🙂

  6. Judy McCarthy

    I agree with Jim. I grew up in TN. I never heard of sweet tea until the 1980s and 1990s. At home everyone was served unsweetened iced tea and added sugar and lemon to taste. I always thought chain and fast food restaurants that began growing up inTN introduced sweet tea, but that is speculative.

  7. Rick

    I ordered iced tea without sugar in a southern state on the way to Florida in the 80’s. The server brought me a big bunch of sweet and low packets for my tea. She evidently thought I was either watching my weight or a diabetic and seemed shocked when I drank my tea black.


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