J. Atkinson & Co. have been supplying tea and coffee to the citizens of Lancaster since 1837, when Quakers Thomas Atkinson and his wife Jane founded The Grasshopper Tea Warehouse at Nos.1 & 2 Cheapside, offering teas ‘equal to those sent from London’. The name for the business was based on the ancient Chinese proverb ‘the grasshopper only eats the finest leaves’. Thomas died in the early 1850s and ownership passed to Jane who renamed it J. Atkinson & Co.
After moving to the Castle Hill areas, the company eventually relocated to its current premises on China Street, where enerations of continuous trading having resulted in an accumulation of wonderful artefacts. These include tea canisters from the 1820s, an original spice drawer-run complete with uranium glass knobs, a 1930s tea blender, and from the same decade, two constantly working Whitmee Coffee Roasters. In the shop window the famous small roaster, an Uno dating from just after World War II, still wafts its delicious aroma out into the streets of Lancaster.
The current owners, Ian and Sue Steel and there sons, have, ver the last nine years sought to develop the business while maintaining the best of what they inherited. Innovative technology, new products, collaboration with other local businesses and an interest in the impact of the production process on their suppliers (‘from bean to cup’) are all part of their approach. If come to Lancaster you must visit iconic part of Lancaster’s history.
The street sign shows not only the original grasshopper logo, but if you look carefully, the evidence of generations of overpainting. Here the typography and the designs from previous years of ownership can be made out; each with its own style and influence from the age they were constructed.
More detail about J. Atkinson & Co. will appear in a forthcoming book I’m working on about printed ephemera and Lancaster’s social history.