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The Man Who Built Suburbia

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When William Levitt took out an ad in The New York Times in 1949 advertising a Cape Cod-style home for $58 a month, he knew what the response was going to be. The postwar years in the United States had created both a baby boom and a housing crisis; apartment buildings were becoming congested with reunited couples and their offspring. The city of Chicago had been selling its retired trolley cars as “homes.” Some 50,000 returning veterans had taken up residence in Army huts.

Levitt knew how badly the American family needed to breathe, and he knew government-backed mortgage loans with low interest rates would get millions of them into homes, and serve as much as a source of pride as a steady job or gleaming new car. To that end, Levitt and his family business were steadily transforming the 1,200 acres of potato fields near Hempstead, just 20 miles outside of Manhattan, was into a community. Newly-paved roads acted as arteries and an unprecedented, conveyor-like construction process was putting up 36 homes every day at its peak. The Times ad was just a way to hang a shingle.

Still, Levitt was surprised to see the line in front of his model house: 30 people were waiting to get in, with more arriving every hour. They were there to gape at the modern appliances and floor-to-ceiling picture windows, but they were also ready to buy—and so apprehensive over losing the chance they began to organize eating breaks and reserving their spots in the queue.

When Levitt’s sales office finally opened that month, 1400 contracts were signed on the very first day. There was no down payment and no closing costs; mortgages for the $7,990 asking price were under a comfortable 30-year term. He was targeting veterans—the neediest of the potential buyers—but would soon be inviting everyone else to escape the city and join them in Levittown, ground zero for suburban life as we know it.

Of course, you had to take care of your lawn. You couldn’t use clotheslines outside. There would be no fencing. And while Levitt was terribly sorry, only whites were allowed. If the American family wanted a chance to prosper, they were going to have to play by his rules.

Levitt was born into the construction business. His father, Abraham, built subdivisions on Long Island, later taking both of his children (William and his architect brother, Alfred) under his Levitt and Sons banner.

Alfred was pragmatic; William was an opportunist in the best sense of the word. While building airfields for the Navy during the war, he experimented with various methods of construction that eliminated the glacial, lumbering approach that had most builders erecting only four or five homes a year. His model was the Ford Motor Company, which sent their automobiles down an assembly line. Why couldn’t he send his laborers down an assembly line of sorts, assigning them specific tasks to perform at each home?

Levitt knew the end of the war would bring a surge in the building business. The government anticipated that five million homes would be needed to accommodate the rising marriage and birth rates. Before he was deployed, Levitt had already taken an option out on the Hempstead land. When he returned, he set about completing the largest housing project in American history.

Potential buyers, Levitt knew, wanted to spend roughly twice their annual salary (which averaged $3,800) on a home. Expensive housing and strict lending terms had kept many families in apartments or living with parents to save up for down payments. By streamlining the building process, Levitt could offer both affordability and quality.

Levitt’s homes began sprouting up in July of 1947, with the first buyers moving in by October of that year. His laborers worked under a 26 (by some accounts, 27) point process that required minimal skill. Complex components like plumbing fixtures or staircases were prefabricated by subcontractors and shipped to the site; power tools, a relatively recent innovation, were used to assemble the pieces.

As they made their way from one property to another, each “team” was assigned a very specific task. It was the sole duty of some men to bolt washing machines to the floor; others were responsible for applying white paint or red paint, but not both; workers specialized in tile, lath, and shingles. Instead of paying overtime, as was the custom, Levitt paid them for completed jobs.

Levitt kept his profit margins secretive, but he saved at least $1000 per unit by pouring concrete slab foundations instead of investing in labor to dig a basement. (A “midget boiler” was installed in kitchens as a heating source.) The Levitts also bought lumber mills and nail-making machines. While saving them money in the long run, it also reduced the chance of supplier error: His conveyor belt was so efficient that a bad batch of nails could derail the entire operation.

Roughly 17,000 homes were built in the first Levittown. While the development was intended for veterans, Levitt was already working on land in Pennsylvania. His system was cemented. So, too, was his ideal American family. But for his critics, life in Levittown didn't simply mean access to affordable housing; it meant conformity.

The first families to move in to Levittown, PA in June 1952 were given what amounted to an owner’s manual. City dwellers, Levitt figured, had no idea about crab grass or property maintenance.

Initially, there wasn’t a lot to maintain. Early adopters had to navigate construction equipment, muddy walkways, and the confusion of similar-looking homes. A community was springing up all around them, though, with parks and pools and places of worship. Dirt patches were replaced by lush green lawns; siding was painted different colors.

Inside, homeowners were brought up to speed on the benefits of an open floor plan. The walls that had led to rodent-like living in the city had been eliminated, with dining rooms bleeding into kitchens and attics that could be refinished (at buyer expense) for added space. Kitchens were outfitted with the newest electronic appliances and painted pink to counteract the white, overly sterile prep areas of prewar housing. They were placed in the rear so windows could overlook the backyard, where Levitt presumed a baking mother would watch her children play. A television—free with home purchase—first sat near, then replaced, the living room fireplace. At night, the large picture windows let passersby pick up decorating tips. 

Most Levittown residents were couples under 30 with children under 5. The nuclear dynamic prompted Levitt to structure his neighborhoods with child-rearing in mind. Streets were curved to slow traffic; schools were never more than a mile’s walking distance from home; the development virtually shut down from noon until 2 p.m., which was a kind of communal nap time. The lawns older children swatted balls in were initially manicured by Levitt, then turned over to the homeowner for upkeep.

Levitt’s father was known as the “VP of grass seed,” and was meticulous in educating residents on the value of landscaping. He even wrote a column in the local newspaper with gardening tips. If someone’s grass went unchecked for over a week, owners would be fined. Eventually, the Levitt lawn care system grew so regimented that the Hempstead residents were warned by the fire department to stop watering so often: it was reducing pressure in the hydrants.

The front yards were emblematic of Levitt’s desire for a uniform community, one as tightly wound as his building philosophies. Levitt hated clotheslines, believing they ruined a neighbor’s view. Anyone drying outdoors was obligated to use a special rotary unit that could be put away when not in use. Fencing was vetoed for the same reason, but once a few rogue property owners put up stakes, it became an unenforceable condition.

To live in a Levittown and adhere to such conditions invited commentary. Some municipalities were near affluent communities that considered the developments' affordable housing a kind of charity and feared they would soon devolve into “fresh air slums.” Others, like Lewis Mumford, condemned Levitt for turning communities into rows of identical Barbie dream houses, where individuals were swapped out for archetypes of commuting husbands and kitchen-clopping wives.   

More alarming was Levitt’s mandate that no black homeowners would be admitted into his towns. From a Jewish family, Levitt argued he knew all about prejudice and had no personal quarrel with minorities. It was a business decision, he argued: if a “Negro” bought in, whites wouldn’t.

“We can solve a housing problem or we can try to solve a racial problem, but we cannot combine the two,” he said. Protests followed a black family's move into the all-white Levittown, PA neighborhood in 1957, disrupting the otherwise placated population. But even with the ugly reveal of racism in his sterile tracts, Levitt had achieved his homogenized ideal. Even as tensions flared, an ice cream truck would drift by to offer cones to the angry mobs.   

Around 20 million families migrated from the concrete cities to neighboring farmland between 1950 and 1960. By 1980, 60 million had made the trek. Levitt’s expedient method to generate housing—he would go on to build some 140,000 dwellings—created a suburban sprawl, knitting strangers together while distancing some from relatives who stuck to cities.

Satisfied with both his contributions to residential living and his wealth, Levitt sold his business in 1968. In return, he received $92 million dollars’ worth of International Telephone and Telegraph Company stock. He was, for a time, comfortably rich, and spent great sums—until bad investments and falling stock prices wiped him out. When he died in 1994, Levitt had little money to his name.

Today, the Levittowns in New York, Pennsylvania, and Puerto Rico are still active communities. (Another Levittown in New Jersey was renamed Willingboro; one in Maryland was built by Levitt but is known as Belair.)

Levitt was not a timid man. At five feet eight inches, he liked to say he was nearly six feet tall. And despite the civil rights debates his developments would inspire, he never thought of himself as anything less than a visionary.

"…I'm not here just to build and sell houses," he said in 1952. “To be perfectly frank, I'm looking for a little glory, too. It's only human. I want to build a town to be proud of."

Additional Sources:
The Fifties; “Building the Suburban Dream,” The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

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The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
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Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
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Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
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Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
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Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
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Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
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In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
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Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
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Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

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The Origins of 5 International Food Staples

Food is more than fuel. Cuisine and culture are so thoroughly intertwined that many people automatically equate tomatoes with Italy and potatoes with Ireland. Yet a thousand years ago those dietary staples were unheard of in Europe. How did they get to be so ubiquitous there—and beyond?

1. TOMATOES

For years, the wonderful fruit that’s now synonymous with Italy was mostly ignored there. Native to South America and likely cultivated in Central America, tomatoes were introduced to Italy by Spanish explorers during the 1500s. Shortly thereafter, widespread misconceptions about the newcomers took root. In part due to their watery complexion, it was inaccurately thought that eating tomatoes could cause severe digestive problems. Before the 18th century, the plants were mainly cultivated for ornamental purposes. Tomato-based sauce recipes wouldn’t start appearing in present-day Italy until 1692 (although even those recipes were more like a salsa or relish than a sauce). Over the next 150 years, tomato products slowly spread throughout the peninsula, thanks in no small part to the agreeable Mediterranean climate. By 1773, some cooks had taken to stuffing tomatoes with rice or veal. In Naples, the fruits were sometimes chopped up and placed onto flatbread—the beginnings of modern pizza. But what turned the humble tomato into a national icon was the canning industry. Within Italy’s borders, this business took off in a big way during the mid-to-late 19th century. Because tomatoes do well stored inside metal containers, canning companies dramatically drove up the demand. The popularity of canned tomatoes was later solidified by immigrants who came to the United States from Italy during the early 20th century: Longing for Mediterranean ingredients, transplanted families created a huge market for Italian-grown tomatoes in the US.

2. CURRY

Bowl of chicken curry with a spoon in it

An international favorite, curry is beloved in both India and the British Isles, not to mention the United States. And it turns out humans may have been enjoying the stuff for a very, very long time. The word “curry” was coined by European colonists and is something of an umbrella term. In Tamil, a language primarily found in India and Sri Lanka, “kari” means “sauce.” When Europeans started traveling to India, the term was eventually modified into “curry,” which came to designate any number of spicy foods with South or Southeast Asian origins. Nonetheless, a great number of curry dishes share two popular components: turmeric and ginger. In 2012, traces of both were discovered inside residue caked onto pots and human teeth at a 4500-year-old archaeological site in northern India. And where there’s curry, there’s usually garlic: A carbonized clove of this plant was also spotted nearby. “We don’t know they were putting all of them together in a dish, but we know that they were eating them at least individually,” Steve Weber, one of the archaeologists who helped make this astonishing find, told The Columbian. He and his colleagues have tentatively described their discovery as "proto-curry."

3. THE BAGUETTE

Several baguettes

A quintessential Gallic food, baguettes are adored throughout France, where residents gobble up an estimated 10 billion every year. The name of the iconic bread ultimately comes from the Latin word for stick, baculum, and references its long, slender form. How the baguette got that signature shape is a mystery. One popular yarn credits Napoleon Bonaparte: Supposedly, the military leader asked French bakers to devise a new type of skinny bread loaf that could be comfortably tucked into his soldiers’ pockets. Another origin story involves the Paris metro, built in the 19th century by a team of around 3500 workers who were apparently sometimes prone to violence during meal times. It’s been theorized that the metro foremen tried to de-escalate the situation by introducing bread that could be broken into pieces by hand—thereby eliminating the need for laborers to carry knives. Alas, neither story is supported by much in the way of historical evidence. Still, it’s clear that lengthy bread is nothing new in France: Six-foot loaves were a common sight in the mid-1800s. The baguette as we know it today, however, didn’t spring into existence until the early 20th century. The modern loaf is noted for its crispy golden crust and white, puffy center—both traits made possible by the advent of steam-based ovens, which first arrived on France’s culinary scene in the 1920s.

4. POTATOES

Bowl of red, white, and black potatoes on wooden table

Historical records show that potatoes reached Ireland by the year 1600. Nobody knows who first introduced them; the list of potential candidates includes everyone from Sir Walter Raleigh to the Spanish Armada. Regardless, Ireland turned out to be a perfect habitat for the tubers, which hail from the misty slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. Half a world away, Ireland’s rich soils and rainy climate provided similar conditions—and potatoes thrived there. They also became indispensable. For millennia, the Irish diet had mainly consisted of dairy products, pig meats, and grains, none of which were easy for poor farmers to raise. Potatoes, on the other hand, were inexpensive, easy to grow, required fairly little space, and yielded an abundance of filling carbs. Soon enough, the average Irish peasant was subsisting almost entirely on potatoes, and the magical plant is credited with almost single-handedly triggering an Irish population boom. In 1590, only around 1 million people lived on the island; by 1840, that number had skyrocketed to 8.2 million. Unfortunately, this near-total reliance on potatoes would have dire consequences for the Irish people. In 1845, a disease caused by fungus-like organisms killed off somewhere between one-third and one-half of the country’s potatoes. Roughly a million people died as a result, and almost twice as many left Ireland in a desperate mass exodus. Yet potatoes remained a cornerstone of the Irish diet after the famine ended; in 1899, one magazine reported that citizens were eating an average of four pounds’ worth of them every day. Expatriates also brought their love of potatoes with them to other countries, including the U.S. But by then, the Yanks had already developed a taste for the crop: The oldest record of a permanent potato patch on American soil dates back to 1719. That year, a group of farmers—most likely Scots-Irish immigrants—planted one in the vicinity of modern-day Derry, New Hampshire. From these humble origins, the potato steadily rose in popularity, and by 1796, American cookbooks were praising its “universal use, profit, and easy acquirement.”

5. CORN

Corn growing in a field

In the 1930s, geneticist George W. Beadle exposed a vital clue about how corn—also known as maize—came into existence. A future Nobel Prize winner, Beadle demonstrated that the chromosomes found in everyday corn bear a striking resemblance to those of a Mexican grass called teosinte. At first glance, teosinte may not look very corn-like. Although it does have kernels, these are few in number and encased in tough shells that can easily chip a human tooth. Nonetheless, years of work allowed Beadle to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that corn was descended from teosinte. Today, genetic and archaeological data suggests that humans began the slow process of converting this grass into corn around 8700 years ago in southwestern Mexico. If you're wondering why early farmers showed any interest in cultivating teosinte to begin with, while the plant is fairly unappetizing in its natural state, it does have a few key attributes. One of these is the ability to produce popcorn: If held over an open fire, the kernels will “pop” just as our favorite movie theater treat does today. It might have been this very quality that inspired ancient horticulturalists to tinker around with teosinte—and eventually turn it into corn

BONUS: TEA

Person sitting cross-legged holding a cup of green tea

The United Kingdom’s ongoing love affair with this hot drink began somewhat recently. Tea—which is probably of Chinese origin—didn’t appear in Britain until the 1600s. Initially, the beverage was seen as an exotic curiosity with possible health benefits. Shipping costs and tariffs put a hefty price tag on tea, rendering it quite inaccessible to the lower classes. Even within England’s most affluent circles, tea didn’t really catch on until King Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza. By the time they tied the knot in 1662, tea-drinking was an established pastime among the elite in her native Portugal. Once Catherine was crowned Queen, tea became all the rage in her husband’s royal court. From there, its popularity slowly grew over several centuries and eventually transcended socioeconomic class. At present, the average Brit drinks an estimated three and a half cups of tea every day.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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