Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black

1919 Ford Model T Highboy Coupe photographed by User:Sfoskett

Everybody has heard this sentence by Henry Ford that is usually misunderstood to mean something like “we don’t care about customers, we know what they want”. The truth is that because of the development of assembly line (which allowed for a drop in price), black was the only colour that could be used because it dried quicker than any other.


Are customers taken into account in the tea industry and since when? To answer that question, we will have to travel to…


Austria… This name implies different things depending on your sensibilities.

Joseph Schumpeter

Portrait of Elisabeth in 1865 by Franz Xaver Winterhalter

For an economist, it rings a bell on Joseph Schumpeter and his “creative destruction” (something linked to economic innovation and business cycles) or the Austrian School (an approach of economy related to the motivations and actions of individuals).
For those more familiar with history or the crowned people, Austria means the Empress Elisabeth of Austria aka Sisi or Maria Theresa, an earlier Empress whose accession to the throne sparkled a war known as the War of Austrian Succession.

Portrait of Maria Theresa in 1759 by Martin van Meytens

None of this really seems linked to tea, even if Maria Theresa had a taste for Chinoiseries that you can see when visiting the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna (if you want to see a part of it, here is a 360° picture of one of the rooms

Which brings us to the main city of Austria, which I visited some times ago and was the subject of a blog post (, which for an obscure reason is now without my pictures. However, you might say and you will be right that in spite of everything I found there, Vienna is a coffee town.

However what brings me today in Vienna (at least on my keyboard) is something completely different and I am sure it will frighten some of you when you read my topic for today post: sociology and most specifically one of the major figures in 20th century American sociology: Paul Lazarsfeld.

Paul Lazarsfeld ©Bardwell press

This Austrian was a doctorate in mathematics and when he came to sociology in the 1920s-1930s, he brought to this field his expertise in mathematics and quantitative studies. Thanks to a study on the social impact of unemployment on a small community (Die Arbeitlosen von Marienthal) published in 1932, he attracted the attention of the Rockefeller Foundation and was invited for a two-years travelling fellowship to the USA. When the time to go home was there and because of the political climate in Austria (he was a Jewish and a socialist), he decided to stay in America, where he created an institute in Newark along the lines of his Vienna Research Centre. I will spare you the details but he created another one  in Columbia, became a major figure on the impact and power of mass media (first radio) and created/experimented with several new and “modern” techniques like panel studies, mathematical models and an empirical approach to his studies that since the beginning and the Vienna years allowed him to get funds from private companies, a way to fund his institute at a time when Universities were not ready to support such a group.

Which brings me at least (at least for you reader) to tea.
One of these early sociological studies is named Tea and the Viennese or in German Der Tee und die Wiener was made in 1932. This study was commissioned by a coffee and tea importer company Julius Meinl that still exists today.

Julius Meinl logo over the years © Julius Meinl

A translation in English was made in 1934 for Rensis Likert’s students but it seems to have been lost and the only documents are in German and in the Lazarsfeld Archive at the University of Vienna. This means that I couldn’t get my hands on any original document and that I had to rely on secondary sources.

The goal of this study was to know why some Viennese drank tea and whether or not others could be “convinced” to drink tea, which meant in a city dominated like most Europe by coffee drinkers, a huge potential market.
According to the results, it seems that at that time people had no troubles speaking with researchers for long period of times, a situation rather unlikely nowadays.
353 tea drinkers were interviewed and the split is quite interesting: 63 were members of the working class, 166 of the lower middle class and 124 of the higher class. To further the knowledge, 288 people were asked about what they thought of specific words or sentences that could be used for tea and 1,749 others about what they drank and how often. This shows a rather complete approach to understand what motivate people.
All of them drank tea either barely each day or occasionally. The former was more common among the members of the working class while the later among the two other classes. However, something that set tea and coffee apart was that tea was drank all day long and its consumption increased as the day went on (while coffee was mostly drank in the morning).
A third of the Viennese tea drinkers came from a family where it was a customary beverage while the majority of them began drinking later on for three main reasons:
1. a conscious choice to do something different than in your previous life be it because of study, getting married, rebellion against their old life, new job…;
2. an external influence like wanting to be a part of something different, a smaller society with a higher social status;
3. an introduction to tea because of sickness and keeping with it.
Only one respondent, even in the Great Depression times, answered that her motivation was the lower cost of tea.

Even if this study was made 80 years ago, there are still some things that could be useful in it and knowing why people drank tea in these times is still an insight for us on who we are, why we drink tea and so on. Now the question that remains is do we drink tea for the same reasons or not? I will let everyone think about it and answer that question.


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