A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from September 09, 2012
“If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee”

"If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee” is a frequently cited anecdote that has usually been attributed to Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). There is no evidence that Lincoln ever said it.

The first known citation is from January 1840, when the speech was credited to an unnamed “distinguished citizen” from North Carolina:

“It is said, that once, on an occasion when a distinguished citizen of North Carolina, was disgusted by the taste of some beverage or other which was placed before him at a public table to answer the place of coffee or tea, he exclaimed, ‘boy! if this is tea bring me coffee, and if it is coffee bring me tea.’”

John Randolph or Roanoke (1773-1833) was a Congressman described by Wikipedia as being a “quick thinking orator with a wicked wit.” A Randolph anecdote (published in 1852) described him sitting at a hotel dinner table in Richmond:

“What do you want, Mr. Randolph?” asked the waiter, respectfully. “Do you want coffee or tea?”

“If that stuff is tea,” said he, give me coffee, if it’s coffee, bring me tea: I want a change!”


Randolph was frequently credited with the “If this is coffee, bring me tea; and if this is tea, bring me coffee” line until about 1948, when credit shifted to the more famous historical figure of Abraham Lincoln.

[This entry was assisted by research from the Quote Investigator.]


Wikipedia: John Randolph of Roanoke
John Randolph (June 2, 1773 – May 24, 1833), known as John Randolph of Roanoke, was a planter, and a Congressman from Virginia, serving in the House of Representatives at various times between 1799 and 1833, the Senate (1825–1827), and also as Minister to Russia (1830). After serving as President Thomas Jefferson’s spokesman in the House, he broke with Jefferson in 1803 and became the leader of the “Old Republican” or “Quids”, an extreme states’ rights vanguard of the Democratic-Republican Party who wanted to restrict the role of the federal government. Specifically, Randolph promoted the Principles of ‘98, which said that individual states could judge the constitutionality of central government laws and decrees, and could refuse to enforce laws deemed unconstitutional.

A quick thinking orator with a wicked wit, he was committed to republicanism and advocated a commercial agrarian society throughout his three decades in Congress. Randolph’s conservative stance, displayed in his arguments against debt and for the rights of the landed gentry, have been attributed to his ties to his family estate and the elitist values of his native Southside Virginia. Randolph vehemently opposed the War of 1812 and the Missouri Compromise of 1820; he was active in debates about tariffs, manufacturing, and currency.

Wikiquote: Coffee
Unsourced
“If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.” - attributed to Abraham Lincoln

18 January 1840, Madison (IA) Courier, pg. 1, col. 6:
It is said, that once, on an occasion when a distinguished citizen of North Carolina, was disgusted by the taste of some beverage or other which was placed before him at a public table to answer the place of coffee or tea, he exclaimed, “boy! if this is tea bring me coffee, and if it is coffee bring me tea.’
(Also printed in Raleigh’s North-Carolina Standard, February 12, 1840, pg. 4, col. 2.—ed.)

6 June 1840, Indiana Journal (Indianapolis, IN), pg. 3, col. 2:
The honorable member paused a few moments, and, then replied—”I suspect my people are in the situation of a traveler that I once heard of. He stopped at an inn to breakfast, and having drank a cup of what was given him, the servant asked, what will you have, tea or coffee?” To which the traveler answered—

“That depends upon circumstances. If what you gave me last was tea, I want coffee. If it was coffee, I want tea.—I want a change.”

28 August 1840, Portland (ME) Advertiser, pg. 2, col. 5:
“If this is tea, we’ll take coffee. For a change we will have.”

Google Books
24 April 1841, The London Saturday Journal, “Varieties,” pg. 204:
A traveller stopped at an inn to breakfast, and having drunk a cup of what was given him, the servant asked, “What will you have, tea or coffee?” The traveller answered—”That depends upon circumstances. If what you gave me was tea, I want coffee. If it was coffee, I want tea. I want a change.”

Google Books
April 1844, The Knickerbocker Or, New-York Monthly Magazine, “Editor’s Table,” pg. 398:
We hardly know what to say, in answer to this categorical query. It will not perhaps be amiss, however, to adopt the in medio tutissimus ibis style of the traveller, who, upon calling for a cup of tea at breakfast, handed it back to the servant, after tasting it, with the remark: ‘If this is tea, bring me coffee—if it is coffee, bring me tea; I want a change.’ If what ‘M.’ sends us is poetry, let him send us prose; if it is prose, (and it certainly ‘has that look,’) let him send us poetry, by all means.

Google Books
18 April 1846, The Literary Museum: An Annual Volume of the Useful and Entertaining, “Rather Uncertain,” pg 58:
RATHER UNCERTAIN—A gentleman who had lately arrived at a boarding house in this city, demanded of the lady of the establishment, at his first breakfast, whether she had helped him to tea or coffee.”

“What do you mean, sir?–why do you ask?” said the lady.

“Because,” replied the gentleman, “if this is tea give me coffee; and if coffee give me tea.”
(Originally cited in Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer, March 27, 1846, pg. 2, col. 3.—ed.)

Hathi Trust Digital Library
September 1852, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, “John Randolph of Roanoke,” pg. 533:
Sitting one day opposite a gentleman at a hotel-dinner table, in Richmond, ...
Pg. 534:
“What do you want, Mr. Randolph?” asked the waiter, respectfully. “Do you want coffee or tea?”

“If that stuff is tea,” said he, give me coffee, if it’s coffee, bring me tea: I want a change!”

Hathi Trust Digital Library
Ten Years of Preacher-Life:
Chapters from an Autobiography

By William Henry Milburn.
New York, NY: Derby & Jackson
1859
Pg. 192:
Our dinner fare was, of course, the never eaten roast beef, roast pig and sole-leather pudding; and for breakfast and tea, a dark colored witch’s broth, that reminded one of Mr. Randolph’s retort upon a waiter, in hearing of a proprietor of a Richmond hotel. “Boy,” said the beardless lord of Roanoake, “change my cup.” “Will you have coffee or tea, Mr. Randolph?” “If this is coffee, bring me tea; and if this is tea, bring me coffee—I want a change.”

Google Books
Home Reminiscences of John Randolph, of Roanoke
By Powhatan Bouldin
Richmond, VA: Clemmitt & Jones, Printers
1878
Pg. 50:
He was very fond of good coffee, and had it strong and excellent at home, but he would hardly drink it bad.*
*On one occasion he was at breakfast, when a cup was set at his plate. ‘Servant,” said he, “If this be coffee, give me tea, and if it be tea, give me coffee.”

Hathi Trust Digital Library
Mistakes of Ingersoll, as shown by Prof. Swing...including Ingersoll’s lecture on the “Mistakes of Moses”
Edited by J. B. McClure
Chicago, IL: Rhodes & McClure
1879
Pg. 33:
‘Waiter,” said John Randolph, at a certain hotel, “if this is coffee, bring me tea; if this is tea, bring me coffee.”

5 July 1887, The Semi-Weekly Age (Coshocton, OH), pg. 1, col. 8:
“I SAY, waitaw! Is this ‘ere tea aw coffee you have brought me?” “That, sir, is coffee, as you ordered, sir.” “Aw, ‘tis, eh? Well. me good fellow, if thawts coffee you may bring me tea, and if it’s tea you may bring me some coffee, the stuff looks jawcedly suspicious, you know.” F. B. W.

Hathi Trust Digital Library
September 1888, Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, “The Romantic Side of John Randolph’s Life” by Walter Edgar McCann, pg. 299, col. 1:
His favorite beverage was coffee, of which he drank large quantities. On one occasion, taking breakfast at a tavern, he ordered some, and when it was brought he set down the cup with an exclamation of anger and disgust. “Waiter,” he cried, in his high, shrill voice, “if this is coffee, bring me tea; and if you have made a mistake, and this is tea, bring me coffee!”

PapersPast
19 August 1893, Evening Post (Wellington, New Zealand), “Wit and Humour,” pg. 2:
Grumpy old person — “Look here, young woman, if this is tea, bring me some coffee; but if this is coffee, bring me some tea!”

Google Books
John Randolph:
A Character Sketch

By Richard Heath Dabney
Chicago, IL: Frederick J. Drake & Co.
1903
Pg. 143:
Randolph was particularly fond of good coffee—good and strong. If an inferior article was offered his sarcasm had no bounds. On one occasion, stopping at a hotel, a cup of so-called coffee was set at his plate. One glance of his eye and he beckoned the waiter.

“Servant,” said he, “if this be coffee, give me tea, and if it be tea, give me coffee.”

Hathi Trust Digital Library
John Randolph of Roanoke, 1773-1833;
A biography based largely on new material

By William Cabell Bruce
New York, NY: G. P. Putnam’s sons
1922
Pg. 587:
Powhatan Bouldin tells us that on one occasion, when Randolph was at breakfast, he said: “Servant, if this be coffee, give me tea; and, if it be tea, give me coffee.”

Google Books
Pageant of American Humor
By Edwin Seaver
Cleveland, OH: World Pub. Co.
1948
Pg. 42:
And of course, said some jokers, it was Abe Lincoln who first told a hotel waiter, “Say, if this is coffee, then please bring me some tea, but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.”

18 January 1953, New York (NY) Times, “More Britons Take Coffee atEleven; Revival of Bean to Status It Held Before Boston Tea Party Is Attempted,” pg. 31:
The British attitude toward coffee—that it is a substitute for tea—was epitomized in a brief comment by a customer to a waiter recorded in Punch: “If this is coffee, bring me some tea. But if it s tea, bring me some coffee.”

12 April 1955, Press-Telegram (Long Beach, CA), “Do You Agree?”, pg. A2, col. 2:
If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but 1 this is tea, please bring me some coffee.
-- Abraham Lincoln. 1809-1865, President of the United states.

Google News Archive
9 February 1958, Reading (PA) Eagle, “Abe’s Photos Sad, But He Wasn’t,” pg. 31, col. 4:
Not Easily Irritated
Lincoln used a joke when other people might get angry. Given something distasteful to drink in a restaurant one day, he called the waiter and said, “if this is coffee, please bring me some tea. However, if this is tea, bring me some coffee.”

The Telegraph
The origin of coffee
The brains behind QI, the BBC quiz show, explore where and when coffee originated.

9:57AM GMT 27 Mar 2010
If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.
Abraham Lincoln

Google Books
Crazy Sh*t Presidents Said:
The Most Surprising, Shocking, and Stupid Statements from George Washington to Barack Obama

By Robert Schnakenberg
Philadelphia, PA; Running Press Book Publishers
2012
Pg. 70:
“If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.” —ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityFood/Drink • Sunday, September 09, 2012 • Permalink


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