Women and Tea: Making It Their Own

Back in 1982, as a woman, I had to enter the building of the private club through the back door. But times change and women were finally welcomed as club members in the mid-1980s.

But did that mean much by that time? Were the stakes of membership as high? When the Detroit Athletic Club opened its doors in 1915, its (male!) members controlled 90% of the world’s auto production (Walsh 2015)—a powerful club to be sure.

Exclusion and power are definitely nothing new

In the mid-1600s, when the Dutch and English were discovering those new beverages—coffee, chocolate, and tea—they opened up coffee houses.

For men. Because coffee houses were the “spaces of masculine business and debates” (Maldini 2012).

Tea was available at these coffee houses, but women would not frequent these places.

But the disenfranchised will find a way

tea-cups-webHowever, as tea became more available in the 1700s, women claimed this new commodity for their own, spreading the habit of having tea by serving it in their own homes.

And the custom of having tea quickly caught on, functioning as:

  • “an excuse to socialize” (Maldini 2012)
  • “a social lubricant” (Mueller 2005)
  • “an increasingly cheap way to receive people” (Maldini 2012)
  • a substitute for alcohol
  • a healthy beverage

And, no less importantly perhaps, as

a way for mothers to introduce their daughters to eligible bachelors (Mueller 2017)!

“Having tea” was not just an idle luxury. Women used it to wield power within their own spheres.

Spurring the import business

The subsequent demand for tea—along with the need for teapots and other teaware—was quickly met.

In 1717–1718, tea comprised 85% of the Honorable East India Company’s imports from China (Mueller 2005), and already by 1712, china ware comprised 20% of the Dutch East India Company’s cargo (Maldini 2012).

Europeans loved porcelain (see my earlier post), and we can trace the evolution of Chinese into Western motifs as they wanted their ware to increasingly reflect their own culture.


This pleasing 1720 teapot and teacup from China (above) has characteristic underglaze blue, along with famille verte (“green family”), which is enamel decoration that is applied on top of the glaze. Although famille verte may have red, yellow, blue, and black colors, its name derives from its greens.

The 1724 teapot below holds less than 15 ounces; in ensuing years, as tea prices fell, teapot sizes would increase. Like the teapot above, this pot’s spherical shape, straight spout, and looped handle are Chinese—and practical—in design (Mueller 2005).

However, this is an armorial teapot, meaning that it is decorated with a Western coat of arms (in this case, English).


Teapot design would continue to change as the Western world fully embraced  tea and teaware from China.

And as with any communication between cultures/languages/peoples, misunderstandings occurred. More on that coming up!

–Maldini, I. “Design history of European tea cups and saucers,” VU University Amsterdam, 2012.
–Mueller, S. M. “Eighteenth-century Chinese export porcelain teapots: fashion and uniformity,” American Ceramic Circle Journal Vol. XIII, 2005.
–Mueller, S. M. Elegance from the East: New Insights from Old Porcelain, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana. May 26–October 22, 2017. Tap here for more information about the exhibit, which is ongoing.
–Walsh, D. “Detroit Athletic Club reaches 100, marks it with sculptures,” Crain’s Detroit Business, April 16, 2015.

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