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Tommy Lipton: The Tea Tycoon

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

In the United Kingdom, the name Lipton is synonymous with tea. It became that way because of the marketing genius of one man who started life in the mean streets of Glasgow’s Gorbals neighbourhood.

Tommy Lipton in 1909.

Tommy Lipton in 1909.

The Early Years

Tommy Lipton’s parents had moved from Ireland to Scotland by the time the lad was born in 1850. His father had a small grocery shop and, by the age of 10, Tommy was working in the business. One of his tasks was to pick up food from ships docked in the River Clyde.

The stories of the sailors intrigued him and, at 15, he signed on as a cabin boy. He saved his meagre income until he had enough to buy a ticket for America. He had a variety of jobs but working in a department store in New York City had a profound influence on him.

The store was on Broadway and was owned by Alexander Turney Stewart, a man of Irish/Scots descent. At the time, the A.T. Stewart & Company store was the biggest in the world and it introduced a new type of retailing.

Stewart's idea was to set a firm, low price for the dry goods he was selling, overturning the traditional, until then, system of haggling over charges.

A.T. Stewart’s “Palace” built in 1862 at Broadway and 10th Street.

A.T. Stewart’s “Palace” built in 1862 at Broadway and 10th Street.

Back to Glasgow

Still in his early 20s, Tommy Lipton returned to Glasgow and opened Lipton’s Market.

Laurence Brady is director of the Sir Thomas Lipton Foundation. He told the BBC how Tommy gave Glaswegians an entirely new shopping experience.

“He has his sales assistants there in bright white aprons. He has rows of hams, rows of cheeses.

“His shop is very brightly lit. It’s spotlessly clean―and behind the counter you have Mr Charm himself. Anyone walking in, it’s ‘let me show you these offers we have, how affordable they are.’ ”

It was an instant success and soon Lipton stores were opening up in other parts of central Scotland. He started buying direct from farmers, cutting out the middle man and his mark-up.

The fame of his business was such that he put up billboards announcing “Lipton’s is coming” in towns where he planned to open a store. The opening itself might be accompanied by a parade of live pigs down High Street.

Tommy Lipton's first store.

Tommy Lipton's first store.

The Big Cheese

Tommy Lipton was always coming up with promotional gimmicks.

Just before Christmas 1881, an unusual cargo arrived at Glasgow Docks aboard a steamer from America. It was the world’s biggest cheese.

The monster had a circumference of 14 feet and it was two feet thick. A steam-belching traction engine was brought in to haul the gigantic cheddar to Lipton’s store. Burly employees got it through the door and into the shop window.

Crowds came to view what was, by now, known a Jumbo, the product of 800 cows.

Then, came Tommy Lipton’s crowning achievement. Just before the holiday, a white-suited Tommy started cutting the giant cheese into portions for sale. When customers learned that a large number of gold sovereigns had been hidden in the wheel they scrambled to buy a slice. Police had to be called to control the crowd.

The Christmas cheese promotion became an annual tradition at Lipton stores across Britain.

The King of Tea

The middle classes of the Victoria era had taken to drinking tea with gusto. Employing his strategy of cutting out middle men, Tommy took off to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) and bought his first tea plantation.

In the late 19th century, tea could be of questionable quality. Because he had control of the entire supply chain, Lipton ran around his competitors by offering a consistently good quality product at a reasonable price.

He became the toast of society, albeit in tea, and was soon mixing with the A-list of aristocrats and celebrity in London.

tommy-lipton-the-tea-tycoon

The Americas Cup

There’s something about tycoonery that makes the ultra rich want to dabble in sport. Today, it’s ownership of major sports franchises. In Tommy’s day they didn’t exist so he went in for sailing.

Tommy Lipton yearned to win the Americas Cup, the absolute pinnacle of yacht racing. Getting into this league costs a lot of money just as buying Manchester United or the New England Patriots would today.

Lipton’s yacht was beaten in the 1899 challenge, but the publicity value was huge. He failed again in 1901 and 1903. He made two more attempts to win the trophy but was unsuccessful.

Writing for the BBC, Calum Watson comments that “The good grace with which he accepted defeat earned him goodwill and admiration across America.” The actor Will Rogers started a campaign to raise money to buy him a golden replica of the Americas Cup.

It was presented to Lipton in 1930 by the Mayor of New York City.

Tommy Lipton died the following year, and his funeral in Glasgow attracted massive crowds.

Bonus Factoids

  • Queen Victoria was known to attack her meals with particular ferocity. In 1887, Tommy Lipton offered the queen a five-ton cheese, which she declined. Was it the size and the hint she might devour it very quickly? History does not record whether Her Majesty was amused or not. But, there were no hard feelings, at least not from Tommy, the acerbic Victoria might have been a different matter. The tea magnate donated £25,000 (more than two million pounds in today’s money) to help the queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 go off with due pomp and circumstance. He was awarded a knighthood the next year.
  • One of the requirements of challenging for the Americas Cup was membership in a top quality yachting club. So, Tommy Lipton applied to become a member of the prestigious Royal Yacht Squadron. However, the pooh-bahs that ran that august outfit said no. “Gad zooks Ponsonby, can’t have someone in trade in the club; it would lower the whole tone of the place.” So, Lipton joined the Royal Ulster Yacht Club instead.
Tommy as he appeared in Vanity Fair in 1901.

Tommy as he appeared in Vanity Fair in 1901.

Sources

  • “Alexander Turney Stewart.” Encyclopedia Britannica, October 8, 2018.
  • “The Tea Tycoon Who Was ‘the World’s Best Loser.’ ” Calum Watson, BBC Scotland News, September 23, 2018.
  • “Sir Thomas Lipton 1850-1931.” Mitchell Library, undated.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on November 29, 2018:

Good story telling, and your topics are always so interesting. Thanks!

Liz Westwood from UK on November 29, 2018:

Sometimes I feel that there's not much left that Unilever doesn't own.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on November 29, 2018:

Hi Liz. Lipton’s Iced Tea is certainly connected to the company that Tommy Lipton started, but it is now owned by the giant Unilever corporation.

Liz Westwood from UK on November 29, 2018:

This is as good as the Alan Sugar success story. Is there any connection with Lipton's ice tea.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on November 28, 2018:

Although born and raised in England (I now live in Canada) I have never liked tea, although my family swilled down gallons of the stuff.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on November 28, 2018:

Thank you Pamela from Sunny Florida. Gloomy and snowing here. Grrr.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on November 28, 2018:

I enjoyed this article while drinking a cup of Lipton tea! There's nothing like it on a damp and chilly afternoon!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on November 28, 2018:

The Tea Tycoon was an interessting read as I always enjoy reading history, and this article was exceptional.

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