The Teapot with European Flair: A Not-So-Short History

Hello, my name is Marissa, and I am a teapot-aholic. Since my last post here, I have added two new teapots to my already large collection. It’s getting more and more difficult to find shelf space, but that fact has not yet deterred me from my crazy collecting habits.

The two pots that I have recently acquired are vastly different in style. One is simple in design and fashioned of red clay with a wooden handle. It’s a rather generic Asian-style, but I fell in love with the matching clay strainer that came with it. The other is über-feminine; it’s painted a bright pink color with splashes of gold filigree and has a rather ubiquitous image of a romantic couple added to the front. It’s a girly monstrosity, and I think it’s brilliant!

As I mentioned previously, when making tea, I choose the teapot to fit my mood and the type of tea I want to drink at that moment. I have many moods, so it’s only fair that I should have many teapots, right? When I’m in the mood for a meditative experience and pure, unadulterated Chinese oolong, or I’m craving the subtle vegetal tones of Gyokuro, a lovely Japanese green tea, it makes perfect sense to use the traditional Asian-style accoutrements. Of course, there are also plenty of times when I want a more British experience…that calls for strong black tea, cream and sugar, and of course, some accompanying dessert. Tea is more than just a beverage; in essence, it’s about the experience, the rituals involved in preparing and drinking that tea.

As the culture of tea has expanded across the globe throughout the last several centuries, tea preparation has varied according to those respective cultures, and the teapot itself has changed out of necessity. Though today the ritual of drinking tea is a fundamental element of European culture, especially in Britain, this was not the case just a few short centuries ago. It was not until the mid-1600s, with the advent of world trade, that the European beverage consumption changed drastically. Prior to this time, Europeans rarely drank hot beverages, and those were usually in the form of possets, or medicated potions reserved for the sick. As tea consumption expanded, so too did the market for appropriate ceramic paraphernalia from which to serve and drink this beverage.

At first, tea was prepared much the same way in European countries as it was in China. Dutch and English trading ships brought back the traditional handle-less teacups and small Yixing and porcelain teapots that were common in China. These were influential for European ceramics factories that were eager to supply the booming market with their own variations.

Tea drinking was fast becoming a socially prominent activity that was, at first, mainly reserved for the upper class, and soon European factories were producing elaborate porcelain tea wares to reflect its fashionable nature. Not only were they more elaborate, but European teapots were usually fashioned larger than their Chinese counterparts to accommodate the familial nature of taking tea.  Other trappings were also created to support the changing customs associated with tea service.

To a citizenry not used to drinking hot beverages, the handle-less teacup design from China posed a bit of a problem.  Eventually, larger teacups were fashioned with handles and accompanying saucers to prevent burned fingers and spilled tea. The addition of milk and sugar to tea is another western convention that required the appropriate tea wares to be produced.  As there was no prototype to copy, European manufacturers devised their own tea service accessories which included creamers and sugar bowls, silver sugar tongs, dainty spoons for stirring said additives, as well as, elaborately designed caddies to house both the tea leaves and sugar.

cream and sugar

Fortunately, over time, the cost of purchasing tea began to decline, and tea drinking reached all classes of society.  The taking of tea became a social habit, conducted both in public and private locales, and tea wares began to also appear in more affordable stoneware and earthenware, instead of just the fancy porcelain and silver tea services thus far on the market. Even so, the customs surrounding the elaborate European tea service remain to this day.

Speaking of which, my pot of rich Yunnan black tea has reached steeped perfection and is calling my name.   Good thing I had the foresight to pick up that delicious-looking piece of cake while at the grocery today.  I’m a might peckish after writing this long-winded post, and I have a feeling that a bit of dessert will pair well with my tea.

Pleasant sipping everyone.

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