At a yard sale decades ago, I picked up what I considered a rather exquisite tea set that had been made in Japan. I have now discovered that I evidently was the intended buyer, or at least someone like me, someone who is not Japanese.
Having identified the set as hand-painted porcelain Satsuma ware, I learned that:
This ware is in fact an export product specifically designed in the mid 19th century to cater to the western export market. The Japanese themselves had very little interest in this ware. (Nilsson 2022)
On the other hand, this set being specifically Koshida (越田) as far as I can tell, this producer of Satsuma employed some top-notch artists (Nilsson 2022). And I’m certainly taken with the graceful lines of the pieces along with the detailed bucolic scene depicted.
The teacups also have lithophane geisha, particularly visible when the bottom of the cup is held over a light source. Exquisite? Or does this detail send this set into Japonism, or even kitsch?
Lithophanes (from lithos, “stone,” and phanes, “appear”) were popular in Europe in the mid-1800s, and were made from 1830 to about 1900, largely in Germany and England. Their production was involved:
Lithophanes began their life as a thin sheet of beeswax. Artisans carved the pictures in the wax, then a plaster-of-Paris mould was made from the wax carving and the porcelain slip was poured into this mould to dry. Removed from the mould, the porcelain was then fired. Where the picture is the lightest, the porcelain is very thin, and where it is darkest, the porcelain is very thick. (Helen’s Lithophanes)
Cups with lithophane geisha were made in Japan in the late 1930s through early 1960s, largely as export ware. They were mass produced after WWII, and were a common item purchased and brought back to the United States by service members.
SInce the maker’s mark on my set includes “Japan,” it certainly seems destined for the export market and may date outside the occupied period (February 1947 through April 1952). However, that isn’t an entirely reliable dating construct because only 50% of articles made and exported during that period were required to be marked “occupied Japan” (Armijo 2019).
The combination plate/saucer reminds me of vintage pressed-glass snack sets, popular here in the mid-1900s—which also seems to place them in that same time period, and perhaps also with an eye for American tastes. Further, the teapot itself is western style and has a matching sugar bowl and creamer, another western preference.
Although I take neither cream nor sweetener in my tea, I love that the backs of these pieces have graceful sprays of blossoms cascading from the top left.
So what value does this tea set hold?
It may hold little, if any, value for someone who is Japanese, for all of the elements mentioned above.
But regardless how this tea set and a lithophane geisha may be perceived, its creation required skill—skill in porcelain production and skill in painting. If this set was one of those mass produced, it’s even more amazing with its attention to detail and consistency in execution.
This particular geisha, with chopsticks in her hair, is a less common design, increasing the cup’s potential monetary value, but it’s also somewhat lower on the “quality” scale, according to one source anyway (Helen’s Lithophanes).
If purchased as a souvenir, the set may remind the buyer of another place and time; if given as a gift, it may serve as a token of regard. But when removed from that matrix?
For me, I find that the paper-thin cups and fine details make this tea set worthy of display, at least in my home. The artistry of the delicate flowers alone is enough to make me smile. And, as with any item collected, it has value in the eyes of the collector.
–Armijo, Mrs., “Occupied Japan,” Antique Chinese and Japanese Porcelain Collector’s Help and Info Pages, Gotheborg.com, 1998–2019.
–Helen’s Lithophanes, “Lithophanes or Lithopanes?,” accessed 3/16/22.
–M., Marra, “Collectible porcelain: Geisha lithophane cups,” Artifact Collectors, 2015.
–Nilsson, J.-E., “Japanese porcelain marks: Satsuma,” Antique Chinese and Japanese Porcelain Collector’s Help and Info Pages, Gotheborg.com, 1996–2022.