When a Teapot Is Not a Teapot

Assumptions drive our lives.

Some have little bearing on our day-to-day lives,

Neanderthals were dumb.

whereas others can have a huge, potentially life-altering, impact,

The water from our taps is safe.

while yet others might actually shape history in odd ways.

These are teapots.

ewer choc tea

But Neanderthals were NOT dumb, the water from our taps may NOT be safe, and NOT all of these are teapots.

An archaeologist friend of mine often points out examples of how our analyses and conclusions sometimes build upon a foundation that is actually an assumption, something held as “true” but perhaps never actually tested or proven.

When loose leaf tea first arrived in the western world in the early 1600s, Europeans needed a vessel in which to brew the tea, and assumed that the porcelain pots packed in with the tea was that vessel.

It’s packed with the tea so it must be a teapot.

But those very small porcelain pots? Probably intended for wine, especially since the Chinese used Yixing red stoneware pots for tea. Why were they packed in with the tea? For protection against breakage.

We may scoff at those naïve Europeans, but when looking at the above outlines, we can easily assume that these are teapots based on their shape.

It looks like a teapot so it must be a teapot.

But we’d be wrong.

Until around the time of the Industrial Revolution, chocolate was consumed as a beverage, so Europeans fashioned chocolate pots in the shape of the other pots in vogue at the time—coffeepots or teapots.ewer choc tea labeled

Does it matter that the assumptions were wrong?

In a way, no. Even if it wasn’t meant for tea, those first diminutive porcelain wine ewers were great for brewing tea, and their small size was ideal for the very costly tea leaves.

Yet because the Yixing teapot never caught on in Europe, the western-style teapot is pretty much synonymous with “tea” in countries such as the UK. Further, the porcelain pot impacted how tea was brewed, how it was served, and how it tasted.

Assuming that the chocolate pot was a teapot may not matter in the sense that you can certainly make tea in it.

However, you’d be missing out on the rich history of chocolate in Europe and how it, like coffee and tea, influenced society, the display of wealth, and so on.

In the early years of tea/coffee/chocolate consumption in Europe, demand by those who could afford such luxuries drove orders for Chinese porcelain—and tea, coffee, and chocolate each had their own style of cups and no china service was complete without all the styles.

Finally, sometimes we assume by association when we simply don’t know what we’re dealing with.

Take, for example, this vessel from the late 1800s. Coffeepot shape, no?

Burroughs choc pot-web

Until you open it—

strainer and lid-web

and see the partial strainer or web built around the spout, enough to keep back large tea leaves.strainer closeup-web

So, teapot?

Well, neither coffeepot nor teapot, even though it certainly has elements of both.

Produced by Burroughs and Mountford in Trenton, New Jersey, the “Potters Wheel” mark dates this chocolate pot to somewhere between 1879 and 1882.

makers mark

This eye-catching pot is hand painted with thistles and gold accents. The glaze is finely crazed now, however.

pot partial

The lid and handle, with their bamboo shape and paint, give this pot an Asian flair. Chinoiserie, which evokes Chinese motifs, was particularly popular in the 1700s. Although this is a late-1800s object, chinoiserie was obviously still valued. According to WorthPoint,

a Japanese artist in their [Burroughs and Mountford] employ painted some of their larger pottery pieces and these are recognized as among the finest of the kind ever produced in this country.

Chocolate pots, however, were nearing the end of their popularity.

As J. Righthand notes (2/13/15), a chocolate pot bought at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 was actually used for tea rather than chocolate.

Putting to rest yet another assumption.

A pot is used for its intended purpose.

–Righthand, J., “A brief history of the chocolate pot,” Smithsonian.com, 2/13/15.
–”Antique Burroughs and Mountford the Potters Wheel chocolate pot thistle pattern,” WorthPoint, 2019.

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