What I Learned from a Vintage Teacup

 

So I inherited this pretty vintage teacup and saucer—a charming little set, evoking Old World elegance.

But what does this cup actually say? 

low res_chr teacup

As I do for everything that I am curious about, I first googled the cup’s description—and came up with nothing. So I conducted my own admittedly nonprofessional analysis!

The straightforward elements: 

This set, with no maker’s mark, came to me with other teacups and saucers, so I assume that it was for tea, obviously for seasonal use. The straight-walled cup makes it appear deeper than it is (height and diameter are almost the same), and presumably would keep the tea warmer for a longer time than would a shallow teacup.

When held up to a light, you can see the shadows of your fingers through the material, which probably means bone china (Noritake has a succinct explanation of china, bone china, and porcelain). The cup shape includes molded sets of scallop-like elements along the lower edge. In fact, when you tip the empty cup toward a light, you can more clearly see a lovely composition of flower-like elements between and below the scallop-like design.

cup motif

 

 

 

 

There are imperfections in the china itself, plus debris fell onto the cup before it was glazed or during the firing process. The cup’s handle features two flowers, and its decorative shape and small size would make holding it a challenge.

The combination of soft deep pink and the gold decoration add to the visual appeal. Multiple elements conjure the image of a long-ago time, so it is easy to assume that the scene depicted accurately represents an actual setting or a real time period.

However—

The very traditional script, a variant of an Old English-type font, uses an umlaut over the “y”—maybe a bit of foreign branding here, making the English words seem Germanic? The illustration includes a generic small village with a Russian-style church tower topped with a cross, so now the motifs have made this cup’s depiction less tied to a specific place.

The obvious symbolism:

The bearded medium-build man carries a lantern, hung on his arm, and has a pine tree slung over his shoulder. He walks on grass (no snow here), and, using a magnifying glass, it looks as though one of the lines of grass is actually a signature (perhaps of the artist). The man is lighting the top of his wooden staff as you would a candle, and the staff sends golden swirls and stars (light) to the village. One star that overlooks the entire scene has extra rays of light. The man’s garb is fur-cuffed, but lacking a robe; it seems to suggest something between Father Christmas and an early Santa Claus. But look past all this!!

Vs what else is there:

The gold gilding could be either stamped or painted, and it is not centered on what would be the front of the cup while drinking nor is it centered on the cup itself. Rather, the cup seems meant to be displayed so that the decorative handle is visible but toward the rear, sort of an artistic stance. Further, if a right-handed person drank from this cup, the top of the figure would show wear. Which suggests “display” rather than “use.”

So is this a teacup or is it a marketing device?

The pretty style catches your attention. But the seemingly historical representation is not so much historical as it is a reflection of what a “traditional” or an “old-fashioned” holiday ideally might look like or what we might wish it to be.

The cup’s ornate and diminutive handle perhaps romanticizes an earlier age, as single handles came into use in Europe in the late 1700s, requiring the drinker to hold the small handle with only the tips of their fingers and ensuring that they handled the delicate cups with care (Maldini 1012). Thus, we might unconsciously associate graceful living and etiquette with this teacup.

The mid-20th century brought modernism to teacup design, emphasizing bold and clean lines, stackability, and durability. If this teacup isn’t really all that old, it certainly does import you into an age before modernism and it invites you to believe that there really was a time when villages slept peacefully under the sparkling stars and a grandfatherly figure, carrying a simple staff and pine tree, signified peace.

And is this still done today? Duh!

And this brings me to wondering what our brains do when we see a mug or cup that depicts sentimental imagery. Studies have shown that holding a hot beverage can positively influence a person’s view of a stranger or situation (see my earlier post). When we look at a cup, do we envision its contents?

So is that somehow a winning marketing combination? That is, we see an idyllic scene that we want to believe can be real, and then we imagine that we are holding a warming beverage, and then our subconscious nudges us to think well of, or purchase, the cup??

Hmmm, just wondering here!

But no matter what, it has something to say!!

So we come back to “It’s more than tea” because it always is—whether the tea itself or how we brew it or what we drink it in or who we drink it with. Everything has meaning. Everything has a story. And because our choices both reflect and advance those meanings and stories, it is important to make the right ones.

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Can the U.S. Grow Tea Worth Drinking?

“Tea gardens.”  The words evoke lush plantations far removed from the United States. But tea gardens within our borders? Can we grow high-quality tea?

low res_tea in white flowers

They Said We Couldn’t Produce Great Wine ~ Until We Did

Well, until California wineries shocked the world in 1976 by winningin both the red and white categories—a blind tasting by French judges, many thought that only France could produce the best wines. So wrong!

Ideal climates and soils—it turns out—are found in many locales globally. It just took some experimentation and perseverance to produce the winning wines.

So Why Not Tea?

Tea is a pretty durable plant, loving acidic soils, being drought tolerant, and growing well in both sun and shade. In fact, tea was grown in the U.S. as early as the 1700s and was produced commercially in South Carolina from 1888 to 1915 by Charles Shepard. Decades later, Dr. Shepard’s tea plants were again cultivated, eventually becoming the Charleston Tea Plantation, which Bigelow now operates as a working 127-acre tea garden.

Other states have been experimenting with tea gardens as well. In 2013, the World of Tea listed fifteen states that produce tea, although many of these operations remain small or experimental at this point.

Still, there is enough interest and investment to generate formal acknowledgment of the U.S. tea industry—last month saw the inauguration of the Tea of the United States (TOTUS) Award competition.

Thirty tea gardens submitted entries, in both commercial and non-commercial categories. Grower/producers in Hawai’i earned the top spot for black, oolong, green, and white teas produced commercially as well as for white tea in the non-commercial category. In this latter category, a Mississippi company ranked best for black, oolong, and green teas.

The event brought together many who are serious about producing quality teas in the U.S., and who realize that it takes time, research, and a whole lot of work to produce top-quality teas.

No Reason At All!

Are U.S. companies there yet? Well, they definitely are on their way.

As Jane Pettigrew (chair, TOTUS judges) explained: “Tea growing is a very young, very new industry in the United States. Farmers are growing different varietals and cultivars at different altitudes, in varying climates, in shade and under direct sun. A lot of growers are still experimenting, as you don’t make good teas overnight. . . . You have to tweak, redo, monitor and record. . . . [It is] a focused program of research and experimentation” (World Tea News, 11/17/15).

So Can the U.S. Grow Tea Worth Drinking?

It certainly looks that way! As the industry grows and matures, the teas optimally will continue to improve in quality and availability. So congrats to the winners of this year’s TOTUS awards—and know that many tea-lovers are watching your progress with great interest!

How to Use That Tea You Really Don’t Like

So you just unearthed some ancient tea that had been shoved to the back of your cupboard, or you hate the tea that sounded so good when you bought it. Don’t toss it just yet! 

There are Other Ways to Drink It!

For loose leaf tea that has been sitting around for awhile and whose flavor has faded, try using a larger amount of tea when you brew it (rather than a longer brewing time). And always use good water! It truly does make a difference.

But if you just don’t like the flavor of a tea, try it iced, as many teas taste surprisingly different as ice tea vs hot tea.

Also, be sure to check the recommended amount (tea/water), brewing temperature, and steeping time—the wrong ones may yield a bitter cup or not bring out the optimal flavors. Conversely, you may prefer the taste of a particular tea brewed at a different temperature or for a different amount of time, so some experimentation may be worthwhile.

Keep in mind that large tea leaves brewed in a tiny tea ball will not properly unfurl and your flavor will definitely suffer.

Sometimes you may prefer the second or even third infusion to the first because every infusion has its unique flavor. See World of Tea’s post for tips on re-steeping.

If it still isn’t your favorite tea but you hate to waste it, try it with lemonade or with a combination of herbs (in summer, I like to make a strong brew of green tea with fresh mint and lemon verbena leaves, then pour it over ice). Or especially in these cold months, add your favorite spices, some sweetened condensed milk, and honey for a cozy cup.

Or Eat It

If none of that worked, use it for baking and cooking. I use hot black tea rather than hot water when I make gingerbread. Many tea flavors make wonderful poached fruit! Matcha can be added to about anything (see my August post).

Grind the tea and use it for seasoning—to flavor shortbread, fruit breads, soups, meat (the smoky China Lapsang Souchong may not be your favorite to drink but you may love it brewed in a sauce or used as a dry rub), anything you can think of essentially.

But if That Didn’t Work, Think Outside the Kitchen

I have used tea to dye paper when I wanted to “age” it (different teas result in different hues). A friend saved a stained vintage tablecloth by dyeing it with black tea, and in art school, my daughter dyed fabric with various teas.

The current issue of This Old House (p. 22) says, “For spotty mirrors, try black tea. Tannic acid in the tea helps remove water spots. Pour room-temperature tea into a spray bottle, and wipe with a lint-free cloth.”

There are some teas—like those with beautiful mixtures of dried fruits, nut pieces, colorful blossoms, and bits of spices—that make pretty and lightly scented potpourri.

And if All Else Fails, Sprinkle It on a Plant!

In your garden, acid-loving plants will appreciate a sprinkling of tea leaves worked into the soil. The tea will break down and naturally supply vital nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium. As for houseplants, let used tea leaves steep in water for a day or two, strain them out, and water your plants as usual.