In the Beginning . . . Quality was Already Second-Rate
Right from that first porcelain teapot made by China (see earlier post) for the Europeans:
export tea ware was designed specifically for the Western market
(and yes, that meant a lower quality of porcelain—partly just to meet demand),
particularly because 16th- and 17th-century-Europeans seemed more concerned about teapot design—and the status it embodied—than about how the tea tasted in the pot.
The Chinese, after all, preferred using porous stoneware teapots, which slightly retained tea’s aroma and flavor.
So porcelain teapots, in both shape and ornamentation, quickly and increasingly reflected Western preferences.
While the Europeans, Too, Looked to Maximize Profits
For their part, 18th-century-European merchants did all they could to streamline the process of ordering/shipping/selling tea ware.*
- Simple and sturdy ware meant fewer errors in orders and less breakage during shipping
- Traditional Chinese handle-less cups were easily stackable (like the modern example shown here), meaning they could be efficiently stowed in ships
- It was easier to add ornamentation than to order complex shapes
Tea and Coffee for the Masses—So the Elite Drank Chocolate
As tea and coffee became more available, prices dropped—making tea and coffee more accessible to the middle class—but that third new European drink remained an elite beverage.
Therefore, savvy merchants commissioned chocolate cups with handles.* These more breakable cups obviously could command higher prices.
The Point of a Saucer, Necessitating New Rules for Drinking Tea
Meanwhile, the absence of a handle on teacups—and the presence of a deep saucer—informed tea drinking etiquette.
First off, a saucer was useful to hold that tea-spoon (see teaspoon post).
Second, because gracefully holding a thin porcelain cup filled with steaming hot liquid was liable to be really challenging, people held the saucer instead. And poured tea into the saucer to cool it. And drank directly from the saucer.
Eventually the upper classes wanted to re-distinguish themselves from everyone else: drinking from the saucer became gauche.
By 1760, tea and coffee cups with handles were in style, although scholar Shirley Mueller has tea sets from as early as the 1740s that include handled coffee cups.†
Teapots Become Totally Westernized
As more people could and did drink tea, teacups and teapots grew larger. Designs became more ornate and featured entirely Western shapes and motifs—as beautifully demonstrated by Mueller’s collection:‡
And Design Flaws Remedied
And that pesky problem with the tea leaves clogging the teapot spout?
As teapot design evolved, a web or grate—with an increasing number of holes—separated the body from the spout. This kept the tea leaves in the pot while allowing the liquid to easily flow through the spout.§
The Westernized China Teapot
The imported china or porcelain teapot of the late 1700s was a very different thing than those first teapots that delighted the Europeans.
As Mueller puts it:**
What began as Chinese in inspiration and appearance became Western in nearly every aspect in less than one hundred years. . . . By the end of the eighteenth century, the only relationship the Chinese export teapot had with China was its location of manufacture and the tea into which it breathed life.
And tea, after all, is where it all began. . . .
*Maldini, Irene, “Design History of European Tea Cups and Saucers,” Master’s thesis, University of Amsterdam, 2012.
†Shirley Mueller, email, Sept. 9, 2016.
‡The Luxury of Tea and Coffee: Chinese Export Porcelain, Highlights from the Shirley M. Mueller Collection, by Shirley M. Mueller and R. Craig Miller, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana, 2016. http://www.imamuseum.org/exhibition/luxury-tea-and-coffee-chinese-export-porcelain-highlights-shirley-m-mueller-collection
§Shirley Mueller, pers. comm., Sept. 2016.
**Mueller, Shirley Maloney, “Eighteenth-Century Chinese Export Porcelain Teapots: Fashion and Uniformity,” American Ceramic Circle Journal XIII:5–16, 2005.
Note: tea pictured above is Sumatra Barisan, available at teahouse.com.