Back in the 60s, if you wanted tea, your had only one choice: orange pekoe,* and in most cases, that meant Lipton.** Chinese restaurants had their own blends, but they were never sold unbrewed. Celestial seasonings could be found in hippie stores, but nowhere else. It was Wagner and Sons Tea that showed me there was more to life than flo-thru tea bags.
Wagner’s was loose tea, and sold in a distinctive square tin. Most were 3/4 oz., with a tin about 2 in. high.** The tins were colorful, with each tea having a different color, with its name emblazoned on the front.
And the types of tea were things you never saw in supermarkets. Orange pekoe, of course (orange tin), but Keemun (black), Jasmine (yellow), English breakfast (red), Formosa Oolong (light green), Imperial gunpowder (medium green), Irish (kelly green), Earl Gray (purple) Rare Mandarin (lavender), Pan fired green (blue), and Ch’a Ching Chinese restaurant (white).
The flavors let you experience a world of tea – and fairly cheaply. The variety was appealing and soon you would get tea infusers to try out all the flavors.
The company was founded in 1847. The teas were usually sold in gift stores and specialty food stores. I knew of one not far from us where I’d go every few weeks to pick out old favorites and try things that sounded interesting.
Then, at some point, Wagner teas vanished. The company, around for almost a century and a half, sold out to a company named “Rose Spice” in 1996. The company seems to have vanished, and with it, Wagner: the trademark lapsed in 2000.
At this point, all that is left are the tins, which are collectors items. I can see why: it must be fun to try to collect all the colors. But the tea inside probably introduced many Americans to the idea that there was a world of tea to explore.
*Which is not named for a growing region or drying method or variety: it’s part of a grading system for black tea with leaves of a certain size and the tea can come from anywhere.
**Red Rose, Tetley, and other teas were available, but if you ordered tea in a restaurant, Lipton was what you got.
**There were also full-size tins of 4.5 oz.