Did Europeans Make Their First Tea in Wine Ewers?

Often, things are lost in translation, with unintended consequences. Yep, a movie trope—but misunderstanding and misapplication just might have determined teapot design as we know it.

That First Encounter, or Clueless

Think about wandering down the aisles of a mom-and-pop grocery, shelves laden with staples from a country unfamiliar to you. You pick up a package of, well, you really have absolutely no idea.

You can pretend you know what you’re doing, or you could ask. But maybe there is no one to ask because the owner is busy talking with someone else . . .  in a language you don’t speak.

So you furtively glance at nearby products—something that might help you figure out what this is—and then to not look as stupid as you feel, you buy these things, figuring you will google them when you are safely in your own home.

Unfortunately, neither Alexa nor Siri told the 17th-century European tea drinkers exactly how to use the porcelain pots they found packed with tea.

The first Dutch importers in 1610 knew of course that tea was to be brewed, but as researcher Shirley Mueller suggests, they didn’t bring over enough tea to “warrant the ordering of special teapots.”*

The problem was that Europe didn’t have anything to brew tea in. The whole “having-tea” was something completely new to them.

But when they unpacked the shipments of tea, they sometimes also found very small porcelain pots, like this (later) example, which is only 3½ inches high:

teapot or wine ewer, ca. 1690, China

Leading to, Possibly, Transformers

Because these tiny pots were packed with the tea, Europeans—understandably—either assumed they were for brewing tea, or just decided to use them for tea for lack of anything else suitable.

However, these tiny pots may not have actually been teapots because the Chinese commonly used Yixing red stoneware pots to brew their tea.

These porcelain pots may have instead been wine ewers—packed with the tea to provide additional ballast for the ship, and protected by the tea against breakage.

How Do We Know? Clue

Europeans didn’t request teapots until 1639,* and even then, porcelain wine ewers and “teapots” were pretty much identical.† After all, if the Europeans were willing to pay money for more of these porcelain ewers, however they were planning to use (or misuse?) them, why wouldn’t the Chinese comply?

Finally, in 1694, the British East India Company, realizing that these ewers didn’t make ideal teapots for Western brewing methods, said that

teapots made for them in China must have “a grate . . . before the spout”. In other words, they wanted a sort of pierced barrier where the tea enters the spout so as to hold back the tea-leaves.†

Thus, The Proposal

So it is possible that what began as Chinese wine ewers were repurposed to be Western teapots, followed by useful innovations to improve their function as teapots. A grate or web was added to the spout; the lid was perforated to allow steam to escape; and, as the cost of tea came down, the size of the pot was increased.

panels of flowers alternate with Chinese ladies on this porcelain pot
And Happily Ever After

Whether wine ewer or teapot, this little vessel from the 1600s has a timeless charm and a design we continue to emulate.

*Mueller, S. M. “17th century Chinese export teapots: imagination and diversity,” Orientations 36(7). 2005.
Hampshire Cultural Trust. “A brief history of the teapot,” website, accessed June 2017.
Photos from The Luxury of Tea and Coffee: Chinese Export Porcelain, Highlights from the Shirley M. Mueller Collection, exhibit by Shirley M. Mueller and R. Craig Miller, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana, 2016.

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