Toy tea sets seem rather quaint today, perhaps delighting adults more than children. Yet, once upon a time, my own daughters loved to play “tea” with captive grandparents!
Imaginary Tea: When This Tradition Began in Europe
As far back as the 1500s, the Dutch were making Delft earthenware (a soft, easily chipped ware). Then, in 1602, the Dutch East India Company was founded, bringing Chinese tea—and porcelain, or “China ware”—to European shores.
Dutch potters quickly started imitating the amazing porcelain. In style, that is. They hadn’t yet figured out how to actually make the stuff.
(See my post Tea Arrived in Europe—and Launched the Quest for the Perfect Teapot, which explores why Europeans were so enamored with porcelain.)
With tea being pretty much an instant hit, the first tea sets designed for children came out of Germany as early as 1687 (Emerson Creek Pottery 2016).
And since the Germans hadn’t figured out that whole porcelain/china thing either, they made these early tea sets of metal—copper, pewter, even gold and silver (Decker).
Finally, a mathematician and alchemist team hit upon the formula for porcelain, and the Meissen factory opened near Dresden in 1710 (Malone 1976). Unsurprisingly, much of their ware imitated Chinese motifs.
In 1739, Meissen porcelain manufacturers produced an underglaze blue-and-white pattern, now known as “blue onion.” Based on Chinese motifs—which featured pomegranates or peaches and not onions!—this pattern was widely copied and is still produced today (Blue Onion Porcelain 2000).
Which brings me to this child’s china teapot and teacup:
Imaginary Tea: In a Blue Onion Tea Set
Porcelain tea sets for (wealthy) children began to be produced in the 1700s. After the Industrial Revolution, the sets were more widespread, and European factories manufactured toy sets alongside their usual ware (Decker).
The charming set that I own was purchased from an antique store, so it is at least vintage. It appears to be a knock-off of the Meissen blue onion pattern, and perhaps of their teapot design as well.
Since the onion pattern was highly popular for centuries, it makes sense that a child’s set would display that same pattern. My particular tea set, however, features a simplified version of the onion motif—undoubtedly quicker to paint and therefore cheaper to produce. Yet the design of the teapot itself is detailed, intricate, and delicate.
A note about the cup, which appears as though it could be full size. Its handle is so small that it is nearly impossible for an adult to securely hold it.
I do wonder, however, whether this set is actually a child’s play set. The pot is large enough to brew one cup of tea. Because it was included with an assemblage of children’s sets, it is easy to assume that it too was intended for children.
No matter. This set continues to captivate!
–Decker, C. “A history of children’s tea sets,” Childs-tea-set.com.
–Emerson Creek Pottery. Tea set history: The history of the tea set, teapots, tea customs, and tea drinking.” 2016.
–Malone, L. A. How to Mend Your Treasured Porcelain, China, Glass and Pottery, Reston, VA: Reston Publishing. 1976.
–Zwiebelmuster Blue Onion Porcelain. “A brief history of zwiebelmuster onion pattern porcelain,” European Blue. 2000.