Tea Titan Died 84 Year Ago Today

On May 11, 1934 this influential tea figure died in England.  He was the first to sell tea under a brand name rather than just as a commodity.  It is John Sumner, who went on to found Typhoo Tea.

Raised in a grocery business family, Sumner, was born on February 26, 1856 in Birmingham. He was the eldest son of John Sumner a grocer and chemist (in US this would be owner of a pharmacy).

The Sumner family grocery business began in 1820, when Sumner’s grandfather, William Sumner (1796 to 1865) purchase Pratchett and Noble, a grocer and druggist, located at 97 High Street in the Bull Ring, Birmingham, England. William ran the business until 1854 when he transferrred ownership to John’s father, John Sumner Sr.

At the turn of the 20th century, the business had extensive stock of wine and spirits, a stout and cider bottling brand and a grocery side. Sumner successfully ran the business for years but sought a specialty product to develop.

He found the answer when his sister, Mary Augusta, who suffered from indigestion, tried a special tea made from tiny particles, not the large leaf variety that was common. She got relief from this tea and suggested John sell it.

John started a wholebusiness business with 30 chests of tea and 200 British Pounds in advertising.

Sumner decided that, instead of selling the tea loose over the counter, he would packet the tea under a brand name. He settled on Typhoo Tipps. Typhoo meaning, in part, the Chinese word for doctor. The double p in Tipps was originally a printing error but remained misspelled on the packets of tea for years.

Launched in 1903 in Birmingham, Typhoo was the first brand of tea to be sold pre-packaged rather than loose over the counter. In order to encourage his customers to purchase the tea, Sumner gave away a jar of cream to each person that bought a pound packet. The tea quickly became popular and customers were becoming loyal to the brand that, even though a little more expensive, went further and had digestive qualities.

Word of mouth recommendation from his customers led beyond his regular clientele and soon other grocers were asking to purchase the Ty.phoo tea, inspiring a wholesale business.

In 1905, Sumner closed the grocery business to focus on the tea. On July 29, 1905 , Typhoo Tea Ltd was incorporated. Sumner drew attention to tea made from the edge of the leaf. This pure-edge leaf tea produced 80 more cups to the pound than ordinary tea and also cut out the stalk that contained tannin and caused indigestion.

As early as 1906 Sumner sold Typhoo branded teapots to customers. He also inserted circulars into the tea packets to highlight its benefits, and included picture cards on a range of subjects, which became very collectible. By the mid 1960s, Ty.phoo was annually packing more than 80 million pounds of tea and exporting to 40 countries worldwide.

Once the business was thriving, Sumner turned to philanthropy. He founded the JOhn Sumner trist in 1927 and the Colehaven Trust in 1930. Both trust’s still operate today. He was knighted by the Queen in 1932 in recognition of his charity.

Later in life, Sumner would write that the success of Typhoo was due to 3 factors: fortuitous circumstances; a happy idea which worked persistenly and loyal colleagues.

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