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Tea at the Turn of the Century: Exploring Small Town Life with Elizabeth Cisney Smith

In the summer of 2019, I digitized part of The Isabel Smith Stein collection on Elizabeth Cisney Smith. The digitized material is not yet uploaded for use but will be available by December 2019, if not sooner. Please stay tuned! This collection includes school materials, diaries, memoirs, medical practice records, personal correspondence, photographs, audio recordings, and other writing and research related to Dr. Smith. Isabel Smith Stein (Dr. Smith’s daughter) compiled this collection to create a biographical record of her mother’s unique life. It was donated to the Drexel College of Medicine by Elizabeth Bouvier (Dr. Smith’s granddaughter) and processed by a Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR) intern at the Legacy Center in 2015, Daniel DelViscio. A portion of Dr. Smith’s personal correspondence will be included in the latest phase of “In Her Own Right: A Century of Women’s Activism, 1820-1920”, a National Endowment for the Humanities grant-funded project by the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL). This phase digitizes more historical material reflecting women's activism leading to the women’s suffrage movement and celebrates the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920, which gave women the right to vote in all 50 states.

Who was Elizabeth Cisney Smith?

Elizabeth Cisney Smith was born in 1881 in Huntingdon County, PA and graduated from Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1911. She practiced medicine as a general practitioner and in public health in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Dakota and Maryland until she retired in 1946. Dr. Smith was a prodigious letter-writer and her personal correspondence runs from 1897 to 1962. Her correspondence from 1897 to 1914 is being included in the “In Her Own Right” project due to Dr Smith’s activity related to women’s rights and the suffrage movement. Most notably, she founded a regional chapter of the Business and Professional Women’s Club in Ohio. Her writings also describe turn of the 20th century life in several communities in Central and Western Pennsylvania, attending Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, and living through the Great Depression and World War II.

Elizabeth Cisney Smith and Augustus Edwin Smith around the time of their marriage, 1903 (Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections)

Elizabeth Cisney Smith and Augustus Edwin Smith around the time of their marriage in 1903. They lived in Fayette County, PA for three years while keeping a farm and teaching school. In 1906, they both entered medical school in Philadelphia. (J.W. Ward, Connellsville, PA/WM.2007.002, Box 14, Legacy Center, Drexel University College of Medicine)

Elizabeth Cisney and Augustus Edwin Smith met at the State Normal School in California, Pennsylvania (now California University of Pennsylvania) while studying to become teachers. In 1901, they became engaged to be married. While living apart before and during their engagement, they exchanged multiple letters per week. Elizabeth’s letters to Edwin are filled with her detailed observations of small town life in Mt. Jewett (McKean County) and later Tyrone (Blair County), Pennsylvania. The letters are framed as an ongoing conversation in which she shares her daily activities, thoughts, and desires. While Tyrone has an active historical society, there are no local history projects currently ongoing in Mt. Jewett, so these letters provide an illustrative look into this community’s past. (For an excellent local history project on another area of McKean County, check out Planet Smethport.) What I found most engaging about Elizabeth’s letters were the anecdotes she included about daily life. One anecdote that I found particularly curious was about tea in Mt. Jewett.

What's this about tea?

In the spring of 1901, Elizabeth Cisney was 19 and living with her family in Mt. Jewett. At the time, Mt. Jewett was a small rural town supported by extracting natural resources like coal, lumber, oil, and natural gas, small scale manufacturing, and railroads (Planet Smethport Project, n.d.). She enjoyed going to church, singing in a choir, and going on outings with friends. In early spring 1901, Elizabeth wrote a letter to Edwin about a young woman who was “advertising tea” in a Mt. Jewett store. Feeling that the woman was too cooped up in the store, Elizabeth took her for a walk around town. Elizabeth wrote that the woman “makes [the tea] and offers a small cupful to each customer. It is new here and so many people go into the store to sample the tea and don’t usually leave without buying" (quotations are from the page shown below). For me, this anecdote raises a lot of questions. This tea was a popular new product for Elizabeth's neighbors, but what kind of tea was it? It’s surprising to me that tea, served hot, would have been particularly unusual in a small town in rural Pennsylvania in the early 20th century.

Page from Elizabeth Cisney’s early spring 1901 letter to Augustus Edwin Smith discussing tea in Mt. Jewett (Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections)

Page from Elizabeth Cisney's early spring 1901 letter to Augustus Edwin Smith discussing tea in Mt. Jewett. (WM.2007.002, Box 3, Folder 7, Legacy Center, Drexel University College of Medicine)

Black, green, and even oolong tea were all imported to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries and were not particularly unusual. However, two notable and uniquely American developments in tea did appear around the time of Elizabeth’s letter: tea bags and iced tea. Tea bags did not become widely popular until the mid-20th century, but the first U.S. patent for a tea bag was filed on August 26, 1901 by two women from Milwaukee, Roberta C. Lawson and Mary Molaren (Begley, 2015). Unfortunately, unless Lawson and Molaren were testing the commercial success of their invention in rural Pennsylvania the spring prior to filing their patent, then Elizabeth was not writing about bagged tea. Iced tea is found in at least two American cookbooks from the late 19th century, but only became popular nationally after the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair (Danovich, 2015). Additionally, iced tea would probably not have been a big seller in Mt. Jewett at this particular moment, since Elizabeth notes in the same letter that it was still very cold there. Certainly, both of these modern American tea preparations were very unlikely to be found in Mt. Jewett in early spring 1901. Of course, there are nearly infinite explanations for this tea anecdote to imagine, but one other interesting possibility stands out.

While tea was not uncommon in the United States at the turn of the 20th century, it could still be expensive. But at the end of the 19th century, Sir Thomas Lipton began to make tea more affordable. He owned a successful grocery store chain in the United Kingdom and created the Lipton tea brand after buying his own tea estates in Sri Lanka. Lipton was able to sell his tea for less than his competitors by boosting production and prepackaging it in standardized quantities. Lipton successfully introduced his tea to the United States in 1893 at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (Koehler, 2016). Of the timely changes to tea consumption in the United States, this seems like the most likely explanation for Elizabeth Cisney’s claim about tea being new to Mt. Jewett. While Elizabeth and her neighbors were likely familiar with tea, it had never been affordable for most of them before. This young woman was probably advertising Lipton tea or another prepackaged brand with similarly low prices. This was boxed, canned, or tinned tea, but not bagged. That event was remarkable enough to make it into one of Elizabeth Cisney’s many letters to Augustus Edwin Smith.

This might not be the most historically significant detail or engaging anecdote to come out of Dr. Smith’s correspondence, but it does provide a window into life in Mt. Jewett in 1901. All archival resources have multiple significances and research values. The greatest interest in Dr. Smith’s correspondence likely comes from researchers studying women physicians from immediately prior to World War I to immediately after World War II. In this context, her collection is made all the more valuable by including information on advocating for women’s suffrage, organizing professional women, the Great Depression, and caring for a wartime manufacturing community during World War II. However, other resources for specifically researching Mt. Jewett in the early 20th century are limited. Clearly, Dr. Smith’s early correspondence is valuable for this unique purpose too. Who knows? Someone might even want to determine the pads of paper on which Elizabeth Cisney wrote her letters. You can see the watermarks.


Begley, Sarah. 2015. "A Brief History of the Tea Bag." Time, September 3, 2015.

Danovich, Tove. 2015. “As American As Iced Tea: A Brief, Sometimes Boozy History.The Salt (blog), NPR. June 9, 2015.

Koehler, Jeff. 2016. “How Lipton Built An Empire By Selling 'Farm To Table' Tea.The Salt (blog), NPR. October 25, 2016. >

Planet Smethport Project. n.d. “The Beginnings of Mt. Jewett, Pennsylvania." Planet Smethport Project 2019. Accessed July 24, 2019.