{ The Man Behind the Tea }

Sir Thomas J. Lipton (1850 – 1931), also known as the “tea tycoon” (Glasgow Guide Organisation, 2012), was generally recognised as the largest manufacturer of tea in the world. Starting his career in Glasgow working at his father’s shop, Lipton soon moved from the family business and established his very own series of general grocery stores. Originally named “Lipton’s Market” (Glasgow City Council, 2012), Lipton’s flair for business and culture sparked a rapid growth in the establishment of general stores. Consequently, the growing sensation of “Lipton Tea” took over the United Kingdom before ultimately taking the globe by storm after beginning in the 1880s. Infused with his charismatic demeanour, Lipton’s zest for business and tea changed the dynamic of the tea industry irrevocably.

Lipton claimed he had a mixed nationality. He was born into a “respectable working class” home in Glasgow, Scotland on May the 10th to his parents, Thomas and Frances Lipton (Glasgow City Council, 2012). It was because his parents’ and his two older siblings’ nationalities were Irish that Lipton grew up swapping between the Scottish and Irish cultures. Moreover, due to the religious culture of the time Lipton alongside his two siblings was also very religious which later on in his career gave him a further connection with his customers and culture of the towns (Lipton 1932, p 37). After moving to Ireland with his family, Lipton left his school; St. Andrew’s Parish, in 1860 at the age of ten and moved onto actual work. Lipton’s enthusiasm for work even apparent in his young days led to a short internship at the rubber factory mass-producing shoes (Lipton 1932, p 35), therefore by the time Lipton began opening shops of his own he was familiar with large and efficient production lines. His next job as a cabin boy on one of the local fishing boats was short lived before he travelled over to America to find different work. Lipton was resorted to work along the southern coastline in heavy-laboured jobs since factories in the city were closing and therefore every other position was filling with veterans coming back from the Civil war (Cengage Learning, 1998). Nevertheless, Lipton furthered his working knowledge as a book-keeper, a door-to-door salesman, and finally as a grocery assistant in New York (Mackay 1998, 66 – 89). It is through this experience that writer James Mackay comments in his biography that formed the foundations of Lipton’s empire (1998). For a whole year Lipton served at the grocery shop and lived in the American culture, observing and taking in the big city lights (Cengage Learning, 1996). It was in 1870 when Lipton returned home to his family in Glasgow that Lipton began to make a name for himself as a merchant.

The Lipton family had decided during the potato famine that it was best to move to Scotland where the industrial climate of cities and towns were establishing with the promise of new jobs (Lipton 1932, p26). It was not until Lipton’s return from America that his mother and father decided to open up a grocery store in the local town of Belfast, Scotland (Lipton 1932, p25). The family had absolutely no experience of shop-keeping, but argued that “people had to eat to live and why shouldn’t they start a small shop from which they could sell to their neighbours” (Lipton 1932, p39). Therefore with a mission to provide for the community weighing more than making a profit, the business thrived. Lipton’s role of the business was taking the cart down to the docks where the shipments and producers were waiting to fill up the cart and wheel it around selling produce to the people in person, rather than behind the counter (Mackay 1998, p66–89). The industrial factories being created, such as the shoe factory Lipton had worked at, were not only creating new jobs for the town but also a new customer base for the family’s general store.

As commented on in his autobiography, the sense of township formed in the west of Scotland out of city limits was complemented by the fact the Liptons were known to everyone (1932). People knew that their product was reasonably priced for the quality and quantity they were buying. In this stage of modernising evolution and the rising ‘empire’ industries (Berman, 1982), being derived as the best shop through the trust of the people was a significant point of difference. Lipton took an intense interest into the family business and even at such a young age of 20 was making quick decisions about the management and operations – especially customer service and running messages across the town (Mackay, 1998). However, his experiences in America and the grocery store had spoiled him for his flair for business was still brewing (Glasgow Guide Organisation, 2012). Tiring from being second in command of his father’s shop, in 1871 at the age of 21 Lipton opened his first “Lipton’s Market” general store with the small amount of money saved from his travels in America (Cengage Learning, 1998).

“Tomorrow has always been for me a more fascinating day than yesterday or the day before that. The yesterdays have gone; the tomorrows remain” (Lipton 1932, 22). Quoted from his autobiography, it was this focus on the future and optimistic persona that enabled Lipton to utilise his experiences from America and essentially modernise the approach of sales in the United Kingdom. From the household known name, Lipton built more than just shopkeeper and client relationships. He had “made it his business” to learn the different dialects of the Scottish, Irish, and English people who had come from around the country for the industrial jobs (Lipton 1932, p25). Therefore, when Lipton’s customers entered one of his stores he was able to connect with them on a completely new level than his competition could at the early and later stages of his businesses. This in itself was a feat, and by doing so it created a thrill of excitement across societal networks as Lipton’s general store chains grew that such an esteemed businessman could have grown up in their very own town, however big or small it may have been. Nevertheless, it was not until the new and highly regarded University on Gilmorehill Street contracted his services for three years to supply the kitchens that Lipton caught his first big break as a respectable and efficient businessman (Mackay 1998, p73). Consequently, “Lipton’s Market” began opening stores in the high-end districts of the Glasgow suburbs such as Randor Street in the heart of Glasgow’s West End, Stobcross Street, and further around the United Kingdom attracting customers from the Royal family.

“Work hard, deal honestly, be enterprising, exercise careful judgement, [and] advertise freely but judiciously” is the attitude Lipton describes his work ethic as throughout the important first ten years of operation (Lipton, 1932). This strategy incorporated the subtleties of what Marshall Berman describes as the new era of modern globalisation, whereby innovation, dynamism and novelty where key (Berman, 1982), and Lipton’s unfailing component was advertising. Telecommunications known to the world today in the 21st century were not yet available in the late 1870s. Modern communications developed alongside the growing interest in the daily columns of papers, such as Scotland’s The Herald, and Press and Journal alongside the smaller, more locally based papers, eventually making it to the London Times (Mackay 1998). Another note to make on the difference in technological times is Mackay’s comment that although front page news was where every empire business wanted to headline, there were no pictures (1998). Headlines were sort after purely by the content the media could attract with words. Therefore, Lipton began using only caricatures of himself and customers and stunts to differentiate himself from competitors. As corroborated throughout several sources (Mackay 1998; D’Antonio 2010; Cengage Learning 1996), it would be these uniquely targeted advertisements and stunts that infused the public and “Lipton’s Market” on international borders.

The excitement of 1880’s landmarks of national growth and buzz of the New Year in 1881 finally led Lipton back to America to globalise his brand (D’Antonio 2010). As noted by John Sinclair, there were two separate discourses in advertising Lipton had to cater for in order to mature his business into the global public sphere; ‘European’ and ‘American’ ideals (2010). The creation of industrial printing presses in 1800 had sparked the new era of mass-production of newspapers, thereby leading the world into ‘mass-communications’ (Meggs 1998, p 130-133). Lipton’s ‘European’ material would communicate socialist views and a look upon Britain as a whole, such as creating the same advertisements to the different dialects of language spoken but projecting the same ‘family tea’ story. On the other hand, the ‘American’ ideals would focus on advertising individual micro groups, such as a prestigious brand suitable for the wealthy in contrast to working class cartoons, and portray what was later associated with the ‘American dream’ (Berman, 1982).

Lipton’s two most famous stunts to secure him on global maps were his advertisements for bacon and cheese. Incorporating America’s advertising discourses of big and bold features, Lipton tied ribbons around pigs tails and had them walked through the streets of a town where a new shop was open (Glasgow City Council, 2012). The pigs would have signs saying, “I’m going to Lipton’s. The best shop in town for Irish bacon!” and be walked through streets causing traffic jams and making headlines (Tea Infusion, 2008). Lipton’s personal cartoonist, Willie Lockhart, drew weekly posters and cartoons of the pigs, called “Lipton’s Orphans”, and illustrated a new story line each week like a comic (Mackay, 1998). Each store was commented by the Glasgow City Council as having its own celebratory parade of product and employees. But on a particular store opening in High Street, Scotland around Christmas time, 1881, Lipton’s second most famous stunt was performed. Imported from New York, Lipton had ordered the world’s largest (at the time) wheel of cheese made by 200 dairymaids with gold sovereigns set inside the cheese (Glasgow City Council, 2012). Within two hours of the store opening, the entire wheel of cheese was gone and another successful chain of “Lipton’s Market” was born, and the tradition continued throughout Britain and into the new American stores. However, it was in 1882 that Lipton made his final and most influential business decision of his career, and that was to sell tea.

Tea had become a sensation in the 1880s, particularly in the United Kingdom, but it was overly expensive for the working class which was a majority of Lipton’s consumers. Lipton’s solution was to “cut out the middleman, with profit alike to [himself] and [his] customers” (Lipton 1932, p166). Tea at the time had been imported from countries such as China and India; therefore Lipton went in search of a new blend in Ceylon, Sri Lanka. With the slogan, “Direct from the tea garden to the tea pot” (Tea Infusions, 2008), Lipton bought five Ceylon plantations after the coffee crop failure diminished the poverty stricken country and modernised their way of living (Glasgow City Council, 2012). Media and technologies further changed in the 1880s which aided the further success of Lipton’s campaigns. First, the government had relaxed taxes on advertising and newspapers, and secondly the working class became more involved in the new forms of communication as the evolution of technologies decreased the cost of printing (D’Antonio, 2010). The solid foundations of “Lipton’s Market” had grown so strong and made him a millionaire, but as Michael D’Antonio states, it was the new sensation of tea that made him a multi-millionaire (2010).

The solid foundations of “Lipton’s Market” had grown so strong that the new sensation of tea that Lipton’s 20 shops in a dozen Glasgow cities in 1880 had exploded into 300 stores by 1890 (Tea Infusions, 2008), with the turnover from tea alone easily financing new shops (D’Antonio, 2010). Glasgow’s once dull streets had been lit up by the bright lights visible around the windows and inside the shops and even the windows of America were competing with Lipton’s new array of tea (Mackay, 1998). When promoting “Lipton Tea” in America, Lipton had to adapt and appeal to American consumers as an Irishman, even though by this stage his travels across the world had led to an undistinguished accent (Mackay 1998, p78-9). D’Antonio further notes that Lipton’s advertising schemes were developed more around the origin of the tea leaves, displaying Indian or Sinhalese people happily working on plantations which gave the Americans a sense of a “tropical industrial paradise” (2010). Therefore, country of origin had an effect on what types of tins the tea was sold in to particular countries, and also the diversity of social constructs advertisements used, and the more prestigious branded label that appealed to the majority of English housewives in the United Kingdom (Mackay, 1998). Even distribution chains became more efficient as Lipton’s multi-million dollar empire catered for freight costs of trains. Lipton utilised the 600 refrigerated railroad carriers that travelled across the states with his chests of tea and logo on the side of the carts, alongside paid advertising in newspapers and billboards, to effectively make Lipton not only a household name in the United Kingdom, but America (D’Antonio, p125).

Lipton also made famous the different packaging types and bag styles of tea. Tea was sold in from chests in pound, half a pound, and a quarter-pound bags at his local shops in the United Kingdom, however business was moving too fast (Lipton, 1932). After Thomas Sullivan accidentally invented the tea bag, the easy-to-use commodity was modernised from the four-piece strainer and infuser usually needed to brew tea to a small silk bag. Lipton also subtly changed the meaning of certain tea terminology. For example, Lipton convinced his international consumers that the term “orange pekoe”, meaning the largest leaf size, was actually a type of tea. And his advertisements denoted that “brisk” in tea jargon meant the tea was not stale, which made a quick rise of new cartoons making slight to other company’s lack of ‘brisk’ flavour (Mackay, 1998). With further adjustments down the track in 1952 to over-right competitor brands of tea such as Tetley (Denyer, 1893), Lipton had used his manufacturing factories in Ceylon and Glasgow to mass-produce a signature four-piece string tea bag called the “Flo-Thru” tea bag (Mackay 1998).

For his contributions to society and efforts in supporting war bonds in World War One, Lipton was knighted by Queen Victoria in the late 1890s and watched as “Lipton’s Market” went public in 1897 (Cengage Learning, 1996). During and after the following World Wars, economic and consumer climates change drastically, increasing in variance but decreasing in consumer interest (Cengage Learning, 1996). Nevertheless, Sir Thomas Lipton died at the age of 81 as a multi-millionaire who had conquered the world through tea.

From his early exposure to the American culture and the opportunity to help run the family shop, Lipton formed a sound foundation of cultural and managerial knowledge, and is zest for life and charismatic originality projected him into the ‘empire’ industries of the modernising world. The imperialistic caricatures throughout the many European local markets impacted by the societal networking of “Lipton’s Market” showed the way for capitalising on people skills and the value of customer relationships. Whilst in American media, adaptations to advertising and packaging images paved the way for mass-communications and large-scale customised productions. These landmarks also highlight the years in which “Lipton Tea” became an international paradigm of culture. With the Unilever Company now capitalising on the global name, businessman of the tea trade shall never truly forget the remarkable man behind the tea.

{ References }


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