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.

A Teapot with Two Spouts: A Good Idea?

What’s not to love about a two-spouted teapot?!

Do I serve green tea or black tea? What the heck—serve both. In the same pot!

Is this not perfect?

Evidently it’s not, because there is a positive dearth of two-spouted teapots. And this design has probably always been more of a novelty than a serviceable teapot.

Even back in 1690.

porcelain underglaze double-spouted teapot, China, 1690
Porcelain underglaze teapot, China, 1690.*
Reproduced with permission from S. M. Mueller

This lovely melon-shaped porcelain teapot from China is partitioned down its center, and each spout has one straining hole.

Dating to 1690, its round base and lid are characteristic of many early seventeenth-century teapots, whereas its notched lid (meaning it fits on the pot in only one way) is more similar to later seventeenth-century teapots.†

So was this teapot really used to brew black and green tea simultaneously?

According to scholar Shirley Mueller,† it is possible.

She notes that this teapot is similar in shape to a later-dated Yixing teapot that has “‘Green’ and ‘Bohea’ engraved on the silver gilt mounts,” seemingly indicating that one side held green tea and the other bohea (which is black tea).

But that doesn’t necessarily seem like a good idea. . . .

That’s because in the early seventeenth century, Europeans would have been drinking something akin to today’s gunpowder green tea—and intensely smoky lapsang souchong black tea (bohea).

There is no way that I would put these two teas together in one pot! The aroma of the lapsang would completely overwhelm the far more subtle smoky flavor of the green tea.

This alone would be a really good reason for this teapot to be a novelty and not intended for serious brewing.

In addition, this teapot would be more difficult to ship without breakage, and early trade—requiring turnaround times of years—was all about minimizing loss and maximizing profits. This too supports the notion that this was a novelty item.


As a quick Google search proved, you can indeed still find the occasional double-spouted teapot, including reproductions of the charming example from 1690.

And you can indeed brew two teas simultaneously. I do, however, suggest that you use teas that comfortably nestle together!

*Photo 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.
Mueller, Shirley Maloney, “17th century Chinese export teapots: imagination and diversity,” Orientations 36(7). 2005.
Tea pictured is available from TeaHaus.

Butter Tea, Lipton Tea, and an Infested Tea Table—from a 1930s’ Diary

Diaries. The word alone conjures up dreams, disappointments, secrets, confessions. . . .

When my husband found his grandmother’s diary, we felt guilty opening it—as though we were violating her privacy, although she passed away decades ago.

But after reading—repeatedly—that the day’s laundry dried well, we didn’t worry so much about the ethics. Because her words didn’t offer much insight into her as a person.

Yet the mundane details that she recorded provide a snapshot of everyday life in a Midwestern farming community in the 1930s.

And much more exciting travel journals can serve a similar function.

Himalaya View green tea

In the early 1930s, inveterate adventurer Walter N. Koelz traversed—by yak and by horse—the rugged western Himalayan mountains, maintaining his diary throughout.

Taking incredible adventures (and multiple mishaps) in stride, his mission was to collect zoological and botanical specimens—as well as Tibetan objects—for botanical gardens and museums.

Avidly seeking out artwork and jewelry, Koelz also amassed household items, including teapots and tea tables.

Offering us a window into the ordinary while on an extraordinary journey.

In his 1931 diary (p. 121), Koelz notes that he

bought an ancient curiously carved tea table. . . . The carving is bold and graceful and of a totally different character from that of the tables nowadays manufactured. The top was soaked in generations of butter imbibed from the tea that had been spilled by the guests of the ages and the gay paint that the people in this country apply to all carvings has been toned to grey-black by similar agencies.

For those who lived in this cold and rugged mountain range, adding butter to their tea contributed much-needed nutrition.

The butter would have been high-fat-content yak butter, with a consistency closer to cheese. Using a churn, the tea and butter would be frothed and then drunk with milk, a practice still followed in some Himalayan regions.

In the early 1930s—as today—tea and hospitality intertwined.

Himalaya View green tea

Throughout his diary, Koelz mentions both serving and being served tea, as well as both offering and receiving tea as a gift. On July 2, 1933, he was offered tea and tsampa, “a staple Tibetan food of roasted barley flour, usually served mixed with butter and tea” (Sinopoli 2013).

And tea was everywhere.

Koelz met caravans of mules carrying tea through the mountains. He writes of:

  • bricks and cakes of Tibetan tea and a cake of HR tea;
  • buying Kangra tea in July—at Kulu’s October prices (today, Kangra and Kulu are districts in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh); and
  • seeing walnuts ground so that the oil could be added to tea.

He bought teacups and teapots—of wood, a Lhasa teapot, some made in Spiti (located between Tibet and India), a copper teapot of “Mongol design.”

He bought tea tables—including one in which “a little bedbug village had located itself” (Sinopoli 2013)! (In case you’re wondering, he put the table in the sun to draw the bugs out, where they died.)

And as it still does today, tea—and water—quality varied.

Complaining on October 30, 1933, that their “Lipton tea had a drugstore taste,” Koelz used prianku (a high alpine, lemon-scented perennial herb that grows in the Himalayas) to add flavor; he goes on to say that they “bought a cake of Tibetan tea that didn’t have any taste. Our herb remedied that too” (Sinopoli 2013).

On January 19, 1934, he writes that their “water makes bad tea so we bought a jugful from a well a couple miles away”; on the following day, when they located “drinkable” water, they drank “tea copiously” (Sinopoli 2013).


In modern America, it’s unlikely we need to add prianku to our tea, adding butter is definitely a personal preference, and we probably don’t have a dedicated tea table.

BUT, we continue to serve, be served, buy, give, and enjoy tea. Because it is always more than just the tea.

It’s community, hospitality, friendship.

–Koelz, W. N. “Diary of the 1931 Expedition to Western Tibet,” Journal of Urusvati, Himalayan Research Center 2:121. 1931.
–Sinopoli, C. M. The Himalayan Journey of Walter N. Koelz, Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan. 2013.

Tea pictured above is available at TeaHaus.

Anthropomorphic Gay 90s Teapot: Creepy or Charming?


So I inherited this Gay Nineties (Lady) anthropomorphic teapot from my grandmother.

makers-mark_webMy first reaction? A definite Eww!!

But my husband recognized the pattern, having seen it in antique stores.

Indeed, this seems to be a collectible that people do collect. Since my vintage teapot was never used (the built-in strainer is pristine), it was strictly for display.

This handpainted teapot was made in Japan sometime between 1949 and 1961, by the Miyao Company (now Miyawo) under the PY trademark, and probably sold through an American distributor.

The Reference

The Gay Nineties—an American expression—refers to the 1890s. The expression began in the 1920s and was widely used during the Great Depression in the 1930s as people looked back to a supposedly happier time.

Yet although this nostalgic term evokes an era of gaiety—and assuredly many of the upper and middle classes did prosper—the decade of the 1890s was anything but. An economic crisis began early in the decade, worsened by the Panic of 1893, which brought unemployment, business failures, bank closures, a stock market plunge, and a depression.

The Face

So why would a teapot be anthropomorphized?

Well, the hairstyle and hat do evoke an earlier era, making the teapot a fun, nostalgic tchotchke. It definitely makes serving tea to a guest memorable!

But according to Rick Nauert (2015),

thinking of a nonhuman entity in human ways renders it worthy of moral care and consideration.

Maybe this is just as much advertising as nostalgia. Maybe the human face compels people to purchase it. And once it is in your house, those eyes make it difficult to throw the thing out.

Because it is still in my house. And it is growing on me.

Source: Nauert, R. “Why do we anthropomorphize?,” Psych Central. 2015.

Moroccan Mint Tea

Mentha_spicata_webEarlier this week, my husband and I drove through mid-Michigan mucks—historically, prime land for growing mint. In fact, at the turn of the 20th century, our state supplied 90% of the world’s supply of mint oil!*

Along with North America, this aromatic herb is native to Eurasia, southern Africa, and Australia, and since antiquity has been valued for its heady scent and invigorating flavor. Mint was tossed into baths, drunk and eaten, and used medicinally.

Mint’s MOA: Scientifically and Culturally

Menthol is the essential oil that gives mint its cooling effect. When menthol binds to receptors on sensory neurons, calcium ions move into the cells, sending a “cool” message to the brain.†

No wonder mint is so popular in the southern, sultry states of the U.S.—in the form of mint juleps—and in Morocco in northwest Africa, where sweet mint tea is embedded in the culture.

Mint, in fact, means hospitality in many regions (think “hospitality mint”!). In Morocco—with African, Arab, Berber, and European influences—the architecture emphases community, and mint tea signifies family and hospitality.

mor-glasses-montage_webMint Melded with Tea

Tea apparently was introduced to Morocco in the 1700s as trade between Asia, Africa, and Europe grew. By the 1800s, China green gunpowder and Young Hyson teas were being imported into the country.

Moroccan mint tea is traditionally made in a silver teapot and then poured out while holding the teapot high above the glass. This both cools and froths the tea.

The sweet brew—made of green gunpowder tea, mint leaves, and sugar—is served in beautifully decorated glasses.

While I didn’t pour my Moroccan Mint tea into a Moroccan glass, I did make sure to brew it at 194°F for 2 minutes and enjoyed it hot on this chilly morning.

This tea is also excellent iced—especially cooling on a hot, sunny day, and perfect to offer to family and friends!

*Schaetzl, R. “Mint,” Michigan State University.
†Cotton, S. “
Menthol,” Uppingham School, Rutland, UK.
The Moroccan Mint tea and Moroccan glasses shown above are available from TeaHaus

Earl Grey Tea: Who Was It Named For?

Although Earl Grey tea—with its distinctive bergamot flavor—is one of the most well-known and beloved tea blends, the origin of the tea and its name is less certain.


Charles, the Earl Grey

Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey, is often cited as the source of Earl Grey tea. There are stories about his being gifted with such a tea and how he requested that British tea merchants supply it.

While it is true that his Reform Act lowered the cost of tea, allowing more people to drink it . . .

Or Maybe Henry George, the Earl Grey

Charles was born in 1764 and died in 1845—whereas the first evidence that linked “Earl Grey” with “tea” was an advertisement. In 1884.

Which would be in the 3rd Earl Grey’s lifetime (Henry George, 1802–1894).

Or Perhaps a Tea Merchant Named Grey?

However, there were earlier ads of a pricy “celebrated GREY MIXTURE” of tea that had been “rewarded with the most distinguished patronage.”

Merchants named “Grey” abounded in the 1800s, so the tea could refer to one of them. But who was the patron? Or was that just an advertising ploy?

And, we still don’t know what “mixture” meant. As the Oxford English Dictionary points out, these ads don’t mention bergamot at all.

Earl Grey tea

And About That Bergamot—

Researchers know that bergamot was added to tea as early as 1824—but to cover up low-quality tea! One company was brought to court in 1837 for misleading consumers by selling the secretly doctored tea as a higher-quality product, with a corresponding price tag.

It is possible that the addition of bergamot to tea caught on and eventually the oil was added to better-quality tea—evolving into that “celebrated Grey mixture”—but we are not certain.

Unless, of course, we can believe early 20th-century ads, such as those (in 1914 and ca. 1928) by Jackson’s of Piccadilly that assert that Earl Grey tea was introduced in 1836 “to meet the wishes of a former Earl Grey.”

Which could be Charles or Henry George!

But Anyway!

Regardless of its true origin, aficionados of this tea will agree that Earl Grey tea is indeed—as Jackson’s of Piccadilly proclaimed a century ago—the “world’s most fashionable tea” with its “delicate aroma and distinctive flavor.”

For more about bergamot oil, see my earlier post: Bergamot Oil: The Essence of Earl Grey Tea

See these informative sources for more details and for examples of the ads mentioned above:
–”Earl Grey tea,” The Foods of England Project. Feb. 20, 2016.
–”Early Grey: The results of the OED appeal on Earl Grey tea,” OED Appeals, Oxford University Press.
Tea shown above is Earl Grey No. 69, available from TeaHaus

A Captivating Child’s Tea Set

teappot with cup

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).

An example of blue onion pattern.

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.

front and back montage horz

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.

inside teacup

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.