Scottish grocer's son delivers tea from his own plantations straight to your teapot


Lipton is one of the few companies that permanently reminds consumers that their name once stood for a flesh-and-blood person. The portrait of the old Lipton is printed on almost all packaging, including hanging moustache, sailor's cap and bow tie.

You will also find one or more sailing ships and Sir Thomas' sustainable advertising slogan: Direct from the tea garden in the teapot. His signature is on each of the more than 1.3 billion bags that leave the factory in the Belgian Forest every year.

Even more than sixty years after his death, the man himself still guarantees quality, the signature suggests. Three important elements from Lipton's life have also been touched upon.

There was the smallest possible difference between the man and his brand. He was an inveterate bachelor who devoted all his time to his work and kept no private life. During his lifetime he was a kind of walking brand name.

In addition to his obsession for business ('Actually, I only have the gift of a salesman') in the second half of his life there was room for another passion: sailing.

Hence the sailing ships and the sailor hat. And finally, the advertising slogan nicely illustrates its main commercial principle : "Stop brokering, buy locally." In the field of tea, he applied this principle very rigorously.

Lipton was 40 and very wealthy when he discovered tea as a commodity. Before he brought the product on the market, he bought up dozens of plantations in Ceylon, today Sri Lanka. There was no longer any question of brokering.

The slogan could therefore also have read: 'Straight from my tea plantation in your teapot.'

Thomas Johnstone Lipton was born on 10 May 1850 in the Scottish port city of Glasgow. His parents were poor Irish farmers who had fled the famine of the 1940s.

His father initially worked as a timer in a paper mill and later opened a small grocery store on Crown Street, a gloomy street in the shadow of a number of blast furnaces. Thomas was the sixth child. Three had already died and the other two would also die prematurely.

But Tommy was strong and healthy. He grew up in the shop where his parents sold eggs, butter and hams that they bought from a farmer friend in Ireland. He was sent to school when he was seven.

But he couldn't bear the fact that his parents were struggling financially while he was bored in school. In 1860 he found his first job: as an errand boy for a stationery store.


He was tall and strong for his age, and spent his spare time on the quays of the Clyde, the estuary where there was always the air of the sea and of long journeys. Glasgow was one of the cities from which hundreds of thousands of Irish and Germans moved to the United States in those years.

Lipton sought better paid work and found it as a cabin boy aboard a steamer that shuttled between Glasgow and Belfast every night. It was on that boat that he really got a taste for the sea.

In early 1865 he was fired after an incident. With his savings he immediately bought a ticket as a steerage passenger to New York. On board he kept himself busy writing letters for illiterate passengers.

He would later like to tell about his arrival how he saw young people from the boat recruiting boarding house tenants. He ran ashore first and asked them what he got for bringing in twelve customers. A week's lodging, they told him.

And Tommy Lipton picked out twelve people on the boat for whom he had done chores and who were willing to return the favor. That's how he arrived in New York: without a contact address and with eight dollars in his pocket.

The American Civil War was coming to an end. New York was suffocating with returned soldiers, so employment was small. Only in the south was work enough. The young Scot, a child of barely 15, was forced to travel to the tobacco plantations of Virginia.

He worked in the rice fields of South Carolina, was a carter in New Orleans, a firefighter in Charleston, a bookkeeper on a plantation. Here an angry Spaniard wounded him in the face with a knife, there an ax ended up in his foot while chopping.

After three years, he finally found a job in the food department of a department store in New York. He looked out his eyes.

He studied the way American retailers presented their goods, the style in which they approached customers, the power of advertisements and billboards. The young Lipton was quickly promoted.

He could certainly have made it in the United States with his talent and manpower. But then he did something unusual: as soon as he had saved his first five hundred dollars, he returned to Scotland.

While others went to the New World to make a fortune, 19-year-old Lipton saw his future in his hometown.


In the spring of 1869, his mother was able to embrace her only surviving child again. The little shop on Crown Street—which served only as a living—had become too small for half the American.

He wanted to advertise, deliver home with a horse and cart with the Lipton name on it, in short, let all of Glasgow know that his shop existed. His father didn't like it. Advertising was hardly known in Britain in those years. 'Good wine needs no wreath,' was the motto.

Such a process was too slow for Lipton. In New York he had learned that the customer had to be shaken up, persuaded, taken in, talked around. On his 21st birthday, May 10, 1871, he opened his first grocery store in Stobcross Street, Glasgow.

The story of the thirty years that followed is one of hard work and spectacular advertising. He was young, sensible, handsome and could deny himself everything. He took over from the American showman and turned his shop into a pleasant place to be.

For children it had to be 'a magic cave'.

He bought two fat pigs and had them floated to his shop under a Lipton banner.

Day after day the pigs were chased along a different route, sometimes with the text: 'I run to Lipton's, the best Irish ham shop in town.' Before six months had passed, he was able to open a second business. Thomas put concave and convex mirrors in front of the door to entertain the children.

The concave mirror, which made you appear slimmer and slimmer, was titled "On the way to Lipton's," the other, which made you fat and chubby, "Coming from Lipton's." Being thin in those days pointed to poverty or disease, or both.

Being fat was a sign of wealth. Or he had twelve bust-chested women stroll through town with baskets that read, "We shop at Lipton."

In 1880, at the age of 30, he opened his twentieth branch.

On that occasion, when asked about the secret of his success, he said, "My policy is to open a new store every week." At Christmas 1881, he had "the greatest cheese of all time" made in the United States, using the milk supplied by 800 cows in six days and collected by 200 milkmaids.

He then used a metal butter drill to hide coins in the cheese. In two hours the jumbo cheese was sold and the Lipton name was on everyone's lips. The Irish farmers alone could no longer supply his shops.

He went exploring in Russia and Scandinavia and finally, from 1881, he returned to the United States.


Lipton's work was his hobby. He never gambled, never played cards, never went to a theater or concert hall, he had no friends, only business associates and he only saw them during office hours, there were no other hours. Lipton knew no form of relaxation.

Relaxation was a waste of time, he thought. He did not drink alcohol and did not smoke. Lipton was always 'on the move', to open a new store, to see a manager or an agent, to buy supplies. There was no time for a private life.

In the autumn of 1889 his mother died, the woman from whom his boundless ambition originated. He had lived with her all these years. All his life he had wanted to be the ideal son who could compensate for the loss of five other children.

What would he do without her? "I decided to work even harder," he would say later.


Tea had hitherto been expensive, a top-class beverage. Its trade was in the hands of a monopoly company and transport from China cost a lot of money.

When this monopoly fell by the last quarter of the last century, steamships replaced sailboats and the tea plantations in the Indies flourished, new opportunities arose. Lipton had an eye for that. In the summer of 1890 he traveled to Australia, ostensibly to rest.

He stopped in Colombo, Ceylon, where he invested £75,000 in tea plantations. He looked at tea like butter and eggs, something he could use to attract more customers to his three hundred stores.

Tea at that time cost three shillings a pound. Lipton pushed the price down to one shilling seven pence and was left with a hefty profit. Before that time, the tea was packed loose in large boxes and sold loose. Lipton packed the tea into one-, one-half, and one-quarter pound packets.

The tea could thus be preserved better, the brand could be standardized and the pack could be traded more easily. Then he put an attractive label on it with the image of a Tamil girl with a basket on her head and the slogan: 'Straight from the tea garden in the teapot.'

The demand for tea exploded. Lipton seized his chance. The words 'Lipton's Tea' appeared on every existing billboard in Britain. He advertised on trains and buses and had Indians parade through the streets like sandwichmen.

With his shops he had become a millionaire, with his tea he lost track of his wealth. In those days, even for the highest incomes, the tax amounted to no more than five percent, the higher levies still had to be invented.

Lipton had been the name of a retail chain, now it became the trademark of a national staple.


The endearing Scotsman then bought an estate near London, where he first invited his five hundred London servants and the national press in the summer of 1894. He was at his best in the presence of journalists.

A contemporary described him in those days as a gloomy and stern-looking man with a military appearance, a commanding appearance, awe inspiring. The moment he began to speak, all this vanished at a glance and he became endearing, amiable and witty.

"He radiated warmth," others say. He always laughed, always joked, always told stories. It was very difficult to get him to say anything serious, to pin him down to anything.

Even at a press conference, he tended to act like he was at a garden party.

He loved to tell the same anecdotes over and over again, at least according to the press clippings of those years. And what was the secret of his success? “Never miss an opportunity to advertise.

But make sure that what you recommend is also good.' Photographs from 1876 and 1897 show that he had hardly changed in twenty years: his hair was still parted in the middle, he still had the same thick drooping mustache and lower lip, the same twinkle in the eye, the same tall figure.

Perhaps the hairline had receded slightly, the hair was a little thinner and curled a little more around his ears.

Nevertheless, Lipton as a person remained a noble unknown. He was just a brand name.

A multimillionaire nearing 50, he lived much the same life in London as he did in Glasgow when he was in his early 20s. "Lipton worked like crazy," said his biographer Alec Waugh, "not so much to expand his commercial empire as to lessen the grief over his mother's death."

Sir Thomas

In April 1897, the Princess of Wales, later Queen Alexandra, made an appeal in The Times for a fund to be established on the occasion of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee to provide all poor Londoners with a free meal on the Happy Day.

That year, the generosity of the population had already been appealed four times, so that the initiative did not get off the ground. £30,000 was the minimum amount required. Lipton, meanwhile, had become purveyor to the royal household, and had immediately promised to provide the tea and sugar.

Afterwards, he donated £25,000, a fortune for those years. Lipton saw advertising opportunities in everything, including this donation, that much was certain.

On the other hand, he was generous. He had been poor himself, he had known poverty in Glasgow as well as in the United States. A week later, he took over the organization of the party himself and made sure that 400,000 people could sit down.

Afterwards, an Alexandra trust was set up to set up a series of soup kitchens for the poor across London. Lipton donated another £100,000. The reclusive, unknown tea emperor was instantly a public figure. Not only in Great Britain but also in the United States.

For fifteen years he had traveled time and again as an unknown man to New York, and to Chicago and Omaha, where he owned pig farms of his own. Now he was caught up in New York like a king. Queen Victoria knighted him on January 18, 1898.

Critics argued that Sir Thomas had bought his title. In the same year, he converted his firm into a public limited company.

Although he owned most of the shares, he lost sole control of the firm and had to justify his actions to the actionaries.

At the first shareholders' meeting he appeared clumsy, stuttered and fumbled, he also made mistakes. That would never change. The self-made man lacked any talent for accountability.


It cannot be a coincidence that his interest in sailing arose precisely when his company outgrew him. He bought a yacht and immediately challenged the New York Yachting Club to compete for the America's Cup, the most prestigious title in yachting to this day.

The Cup had existed since 1851 and was immediately stolen from Great Britain by the Americans. In half a century, no Briton had managed to recapture it. Lipton's challenge came as a complete surprise to everyone.

Perhaps it was initially only intended as yet another publicity stunt. It quickly became a serious matter.

In September 1899 Sir Thomas set out with his Shamrock – the symbol of Ireland, referring to his Irish parents – for the race to New York. There happened to be the celebration of the victory of the Spanish-American war going on. Lipton was caught up like a hero.

He lost the match, but was also celebrated in England afterwards. For the first time in his life - he was almost 50 at the time - he was a public figure and came into contact with everyone who was famous. The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, welcomed him into his circle of friends.

The British Empire was entering its last ten glorious years and Lipton was right in the middle of it.

Year after year, his firm paid out between 12 and 15% in dividends. And Sir Thomas continued to focus on sailing. In 1900 he challenged the Americans again. He also lost in the second race in 1901. It only made him more famous and celebrated.

The third match took place in 1903. Lipton faced American tycoons such as Vanderbilt and Rockefeller. His ship had to be robust to make the trip across the Atlantic and slim and slender to win the race.

Again lost his Shamrock. But his charming style and sporty spirit made a big impression. So much so that President Theodore Roosevelt hosted a banquet for him at the White House.

American tourists in London said there were only two people they really wanted to see, King Edward and Sir Thomas.

The years 1897 to 1910 were a high point in his life. Once an American journalist lured him by inventing an interview in which Sir Thomas stated that he was eagerly looking for a mate and then sketched a profile of his bride-to-be.

Hundreds of women stormed his New York hotel. As a refugee, he had to leave the country that time. While he used to put all his energy into work, he now put everything aside for sailing. There was no time for romances.

According to his biographers, his mother was the only great love he had ever known. "His maternal love blocked his emotional development towards women in general," writes his biographer Alec Waugh.

In the last years of his life he said he regretted only two things: that he had never married and that he had never won the America's Cup. In 1910, King Edward died, who in the meantime had become a good friend. This also ended an era in Lipton's life.


London disappointed him. He traveled increasingly to the United States and spent the winters in Ceylon. In 1913 he challenged the American sailors for the fourth time. But by the time that race was due to take place in September 1914, World War I broke out.

At the same time, he was faced with the one and only scandal that would plague his 80-year life. Lipton's staff had paid bribes to army officers for years to win certain orders.

The ensuing process got into political waters and even led to a House of Lords debate that also included Lipton's name as chairman of the board and director. Lipton, the British sports hero incarnate, took this seriously.

At the next shareholders' meeting, reproaches were thrown at him. He felt dishonored and humiliated. He was angry, and resentful of a world where this could happen.

During the war years, he suddenly resumed the strict work routine. In the evenings he would leaf through the fifty books of press clippings he had compiled about himself. "Apparently the only way a man of action can document his life," said one biographer.

In July 1920, the fourth race for the America's Cup took place, and again he lost. Lipton was now 70, a grand old man. The British cherished him as they had never done before.

A well-known journalist in those days described meeting him in an interior crammed with trophies. And how he dished up the eternal anecdotes and ended, as always, with some life wisdom from his mother. “He was simple and charming.

His pride in his noble relations was so naive that you couldn't take offense at it.'


He was terrified of burglars. Guests heard guards' footsteps on the gravel at night. Because of the security installation, they were not allowed to touch the windows.

He had himself medically examined daily. "The body is a piece of machinery that requires as much care as an automobile," he said. Day and night the old man sat bent over files. In 1924, profits declined. 1925 turned into a total debacle.

Shareholders felt that the big boss overestimated his powers, that he should delegate more, that he should work until five in the afternoon and not until three in the morning. By 1926 it was clear that the firm was in serious trouble.

Old Lipton had to relinquish control: 'He was like a child whose beloved toys were taken brusquely and cruelly. He didn't realize that what was being done was in his best interests. He was full of pathetic accusations and rather stupid rancor," said one employee.

The press, with whom Lipton was highly regarded, spared the grand old man so that his image to the British public was not tarnished. Acquaintances later said that Lipton had become careless about gigantic sums and stingy about small ones. Much mischief also arose from his leadership style.

The world group had in fact remained a one-man company. Lipton never asked anyone for advice. He could not cooperate within management. He was impatient, quick-tempered and ruthless. He sometimes fired at random. He lost his sight for the right man in the right place.

He continued to look for young people as he had been one himself. But times had changed, and Lipton was taken in by the loud, swaggering type, people who turned out to be lazy and dishonest in retrospect.

He eventually mistrusted everything and everyone and installed microphones in the sofas in his living room to eavesdrop on partners before he received them. Staff members were ordered to spy on each other. The working climate soured.

Lipton was pushed aside and four years later a dividend could be paid again. Sir Thomas was forced to sell his British shares, bringing his company under the control of the Dutch margarine manufacturer Van den Bergh. 1926 was a dark year.

It is significant that his collection of press clippings, which has grown to 84 volumes, came to a standstill in that year.


He did retain control of his business in America, which prospered enormously, so that he increasingly found himself on the other side of the ocean. The American journalists treated him like royalty. Everything he did was news. He wrapped them around his finger with his jokes and British flair.

He used to say, "My only relatives are a couple of mosquitoes in New Jersey, who welcomed me here sixty years ago." For ten years he negotiated the terms for a fifth race with the New York Yachting Club. In 1930 it was that time again.

In London he was escorted out by King George VI. The media interest was enormous. But this time too he – 80 years old – had to lose out.

The Americans were so sympathetic to "the world's worst loser" that they held a national collection in order to present him with a cup – made by Tiffany's from 18-karat gold – that was more precious than the winner's.

The farewell party that followed also had symbolic significance. The feast of the western world was over. The Great Depression cast its first shadow. Although Sir Thomas was imperturbably planning another race in 1932. He turned 81 in May 1931.

Europe also fell into an economic crisis: that summer hoteliers in the south of France refused to pay English checks. Thomas Lipton's world was in decline. At the end of September, he caught a cold while driving a car.

The next day he still worked all morning. In the evening he received guests at a dinner.

He was cheerful, cheerful and played a game of billiards. Later that evening, staff found him unconscious in his room. Two days later, on October 2, 1931, he was dead.

He was interred in the graves of his parents, brothers and sisters in Glasgow's SouthernNecropolis Churchyard. His will contained only two small personal bequests. He had earmarked the rest of his fortune for the sick and poorhouses in his hometown.

His company was incorporated in 1929 through the Dutch margarine manufacturer Van den Bergh into the British-Dutch Unilever, which also acquired the American branch in 1946.