Thanks to my friend Frivolitea I learned about "A Full Cup" by Michael D'Antonio, a new book about Sir Thomas Lipton's life and his quest for the America's Cup. Frankly, the sailing stuff doesn't much interest me, and I expected I would probably read only half the book at best, but I happily devoured this marvelous story and hope some of you will read it as well. I knew Lipton was a tea merchant, and I'd read he was a whiz at marketing, but that was about it. After reading this book, I now know he was perhaps the world's greatest example of a self-made man, a brilliant businessman, a generous-hearted soul who was kind to the poor, and in the world of sport, an incredibly gracious loser.
Young "Tommy" Lipton was raised in the slums of Glasgow, and at 18 he set off for America to seek his fortune. Arriving in New York Harbor in 1866, Lipton was one of many immigrants needing a job and ultimately ended up heading south to work as a farm laborer in Virginia, then on a rice plantation in South Carolina, then with a streetcar company in New Orleans. He decided to give New York one more try, and this time he found a job at A.T. Stewart's department store, a job at which Lipton not only excelled but also learned the skills that would set the course for the rest of his life. After saving some money, he took his new retail skills and headed home to Glasgow, where his parents ran a tiny grocery. In a sign of things to come, he bought gifts for his mother that he knew would impress the folks back home, a rocking chair and a barrel of flour, and had them placed on the roof of his horse-drawn cab as he approached home. The crowd that followed did not fail to notice that little Tommy Lipton had grown up, and now "Thomas J. Lipton" was back and ready to rumble. When he couldn't — at first — talk his too-humble parents into expanding their business, he figured out how to work the grocery trade on his own. Soon his father relented and gave his blessing for Lipton to open another store. Lipton had learned the value of buying in large quantities in order to offer lower prices, and in 1871 he opened Lipton's Market.
Lipton's marketing genius was shrewd enough that D'Antonio titled one chapter of his book "P.T. Lipton," and it appears to be an apt name. Horse-drawn vans traveled through town with the Lipton name painted on the sides in large letters. A new store opened. Lipton was selling so much pork he opened his own slaughterhouse to solve the supply problem. Brilliant at the art of getting free publicity, Lipton would send hams to the rich and powerful and then publicize their thank-you letters, such as one he received from the mother of Eugénie, last empress of France. By 1880, Lipton had 20 shops in Glasgow and was ready to move into England.
The best chapter in the book for tea lovers is no doubt "Tea Tom," in which D'Antonio tells how Lipton, originally ambivalent about the tea trade (imagine!), began to gather information about the tea business and realized the profits that could be made. I greatly enjoyed learning about Lipton's research into creating a quality brew: "In Lipton's tea, drinkers got a high proportion of orange pekoe — OP for short — that had been handled with the kind of care a good winemaker applies to fine grapes. In the days before machinery took over much of the work, pickers plucked the leaves with the pads of their fingers, avoiding the creases and cuts that their nails might make." Soon tea money was coming into his stores (which now numbered 300), and in 1890 Lipton sailed for Ceylon to shop for tea estates, which resulted, as we know today, in great success.
Lipton was apparently quite the celebrity back in the day, and I constantly marveled at the famous names in his circle of friends and acquaintances: President Rutherford B. Hayes, Prince Edward (whose mother, Queen Victoria, had knighted Lipton), Princess Alexandra, William K. Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan, President Theodore Roosevelt, Louis B. Mayer. At times, it seemed that Lipton was like Forrest Gump and simply turned up everywhere!
Of course I haven't even touched on the quest for the America's Cup, which any of you interested in sailing will no doubt be thrilled to read about. Even in that portion of the book, this admitted landlubber found treasures like this: "Three-o'clock tea on Lipton's yacht, which sometimes involved a hundred invitees, was a lavish event, worthy of Miss Cranston. Each guest's cup was delivered on an individual silver tray that also carried a slice of lemon, two lumps of sugar and a dragon's-head milk pitcher. Broiled fowl and pastries would be accompanied by champagne, and each guest received a small present at the end of the meal."
"A Full Cup" was much, much more fascinating reading than I had dared hope, and I am delighted to recommend it to my fellow tea lovers!