The elements of tea involved many props and pieces. The still life, pictured at the left and painted by Swiss artist Jean-Étienne Liotard, depicts the typical elements used for tea in the eighteenth century. Starting on the left-hand side and working around clockwise, the painting shows: teapot, tea caddy, two tea cups and matching saucers, slop bowl, sugar tongs and sugar bowl, cream jug, three tea cups and saucers, and in the center a plate of bread and butter.
Originally, teapots were porcelain but over time silver teapots became prized among tea drinkers. (An interesting side note about silver teapots is that although they were highly desired and kept the water hotter for a longer period of time, they had drawbacks: they were difficult to clean, retained the taste of previously brewed teas, and often affected the delicate nature of imported teas.) Teapots were initially small, but, by the 1750s, they were large enough to hold dozens of cups of tea. In fact, at one point, teapots were so large, they were unmanageable. People also began to rely on bubbling and hissing urns to boil their water, and, once heated, it took a mere flip of the spout for the water to flow into the teapot.
The tea caddy held the precious and expensive tea leaves required for daily use. Tea drinkers of the 1700 and early 1800s could choose between green or black tinted leaves, and the most popular varieties of teas went by very different names than teas do today. For instance, Luh cha, or green-leafed teas, included such varieties as Gunpowder, Hyson, or Singlo whereas Hung cha, or black teas, included Bohea, Congo, Pekoe, or Souchong.
Each tea’s name was also often based on some unique factor, such as where it came from, how it looked, or the process required to cultivate or manufacture it. For instance, gunpowder tea acquired its name from the fact it had dark gray irregular-shaped balls that looked similar to early gunpowder pellets. Hyson was a pale, young tea and acquired its name from yu-tsien, which means flourishing spring or before the rain. Singlo (also called “Pi-cha, or skin tea”) was the name of the mountain range where this particular leaf was cultivated. Bohea (also sometimes spelled Bohee) was an anglicized pronunciation of Wu-yi, the mountains in the Fukien region from where this leaf was gathered. Congo was derived from cong-foo, which signified its preparation occurred with great care and labor. The flowery Pekoe (or Poco) leaf acquired its name from the tender white down residing on the leaf’s underside, and Souchong, a dark tea, with supposedly the “finest flavor,” was based on siau-chung, meaning small, young plant.
When tea was introduced to the English in the mid 1600s, the English drank it using the traditional handleless bowls the Chinese used and referred to as a “dish of tea” rather than a cup. The handleless bowls were about half as large as teacups are now. They held just a few sips, “anything from two or three elegantly sipped mouthfuls to two or three tablespoons.” Interestingly, coffee cups had always been larger and straight-sided in comparison to the smaller, curved teacups, and they gained a handle before teacups.
The handle for the English teacup was adapted from the handle used on “posset” cups. (Posset cups served as containers for hot spiced medieval drinks of curdled milk mixed with wine or ale, and these cups acquired handles to prevent injury to sensitive fingers.) Teacup handles did not appear until the nineteenth century, and, by the late 1800s, there were many teacup choices. That is perhaps why The Delineator noted that the best type of teacup was one without “a fluted, fancy edge. The cup that is quite comfortable is broad both at top and bottom — a dumpy affair, in fact — and sits firmly in its saucer, making an accident almost impossible.”
According to Jane Pettigrew, the idea for “saucers originated in China when the daughter of a military man found the cups [of tea] too hot to pass around and so asked a local potter to design a little dish on which the cups could sit.” This developed into a rim, located in the center of the dish that prevented the cup from sliding. The Delineator noted the value of setting a cup firmly in its saucer:
“When a cup disregards the laws of gravitation and is perched upon tiny legs or is otherwise insecure, you may be sure that there is small comfort in its use. A cup that ‘slides’ in its saucer is likely to ruin … [a] lady’s gown, and woe betide the luckless hostess at whose house such a mishap occurs!”
Moreover, similar to teacups, the saucers were about half as large, which then required special dishes to hold tongs or spoons.
Slop bowls were exactly that, a container for slop. Yet, they were still an important component of a traditional tea set. Slop bowls allowed tea drinkers to pour cold tea into them before refilling their cup with fresh, hot tea. They also held the dregs of tea and any errant leaves left behind from the bottom of a cup.
Porcelain tea sets often involved the inclusion of several silver pieces, such as sugar tongs, mote spoons, and teaspoons. Sugar tongs, also called tea tongs or sugar nips, were used to transfer sugar cubes from the sugar bowl to the teacup. They came in three basic forms: fire tongs, scissors tongs, and bow tongs. Fire tongs were the earliest tongs and were joined at the end by a pivot. Scissor tongs appeared next, pivoted from the center, and were similar to a pair of scissors. In the 1770s, the most functional of sugar tongs appeared, and these were bow tongs bent in a U-shape with two flexible springy arms.
Besides the sugar tongs, fragile, shallow, pointy-ended mote spoons were also used. Mote spoons or skimmers first appeared in the late 1600s and were utilitarian as well as pretty and charming. It is likely they functioned in three ways: as a measuring device, a skimmer, and a prodding device. Removing a measured amount of tea from the tea caddy to the teapot could have easily be accomplished with a mote spoon. Once the tea was brewed and poured into delicate teacups, mote spoons then skimmed the mote, which was tiny pieces of debris such as insect parts, dirt, stems, twigs, or weeds. Lastly, teapots often became blocked with “swollen infused leaves,” and, perhaps, the mote spoon’s sharp tip prodded or unblocked the leaves stuck at the teapot’s spout. When tea strainers came into use at the end of the 1700s, mote spoons disappeared. If you are interested in learning more about mote spoons, Kathyrn Kane wrote an in-depth post that you can access by clicking here.
Silver and gilded teaspoons stirred the delicious sugar or cream into the tea and were considered critical to any tea set. Because cups were small, so were spoons, and these “teaspoons” remained small until the late eighteenth century, after which they nearly doubled in size before reducing again in 1870. Another reason for teaspoons was in polite society there were rules associated with tea drinking and it was ill-mannered to refuse a cup of tea when poured. Placing a teaspoon across the teacup notified the hostess to stop pouring the “cup that cheers.”
When tea first appeared it was sold as an herbal tonic, and as it was customary to add sugar to herbal drinks to make them more palatable, there was little thought in adding it to tea. In addition, at the time, sugar was imported and expensive. It was also not granulated or cubed and came in large amounts, 6 pound cones or loaves that the consumer was responsible to cut into the appropriate shape or size. This cutting occurred by hand and with the use of nippers. This took a huge amount of nipping, because according to one nineteenth century writer, “Sugar is used by most people twice a day. It makes a part of the breakfast and supper of the lower orders of people and there is no doubt but many of them use it three times a day.”
The milk jug held milk or cream. When people first began drinking tea they did not add milk or cream to their tea. However, they started adding it in the early 1700s. One person who added milk to her tea was Harriet Martineau, a sociologist and writer. In fact, a friend sketched her by the fire, “teapot, cup and saucer and milk-jug on the table by her side.” This love of adding milk to tea in the United Kingdom was noticed by numerous foreigners, including Pehr Kalm, a Swedish-Finnish explorer and botanist. When he visited England he noted: “Most people pour a little cream or sweet milk into the teacup when they are about to drink the tea.”
Plates were not necessarily part of a tea set, “although after 1750, some sets did include two [plates], presumably for thin slices of bread and butter.” Even if tea sets did not necessarily include plates, tea-biscuits or bread and butter were a common element served with tea. Additionally, in the Victorian Era, hostesses would often place bread and butter or biscuits on paper doilies rather than on the bare plate as doilies added an element of sophistication and provided a nice lacy edge to food displays. An interesting side note about doilies is that they were named for the draper Mr. Doily, who was a cloth wholesaler and owned a shop on the Strand in the 1600s. His name was first applied to a “light linen fabric” that he created and used in petticoats. But by the 1700s, his name became associated with table napkins, and as doilies were supposedly developed from napkins, that is how the paper doily got its name.
-  Pettigrew, Jane, A Social History of Tea, London, 2001, p. 31.
-  The Delineator, No. 5, November 1896, London, 1896, p. 655.
-  Pettigrew, Jane, 2001, p. 31.
-  The Delineator, November 1896, p. 655.
-  Burke, Edmund, Dodsley’s Annual Register, 1810, p. 127.
-  Reade, Arthur, Tea and Tea Drinking, 1884, p. 97.
-  Pettigrew, Jane, 2001, p. 59.
-  Pettigrew, Jane, Design for Tea, Gloucestershire, 2004, p. 138.