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Tea Set History

The history of the tea set, teapots, tea customs, and tea drinking.

Nothing could be more commonplace, or seemingly unmysterious, than the tea,set found in the modern American kitchen. Though popular imagination regarding its origins may stretch back as far as thoughts of European nobles sipping from Royal Albert china at their afternoon tea parties, it seldom reaches farther. This brief, yet noteworthy, history of the tea set presents the true and glorious story of this fabulous, yet homely, article.

As with so many facets of Asian culture, the Chinese claim that tea drinking has mythical origins rooted in the golden, glorious past of the people. It is said that tea was discovered by Shen Nong, one of the three great Emperors of the San Huang period (3000-2700 B.C.). Shen Nong is also known as the father of agriculture and the inventor of Chinese herbal medicine. It must be added that Indian mythology credits the custom of tea drinking to a monk named Bodhidharma, who was the founder of Zen Buddhism. Legend has it that he plucked leaves from a wild tea bush to keep him awake during the fifth year of his seven years of sleepless contemplation. Bodhidharma was born near Madras, India, and he made a voyage to China in 520 A.D.

The official history of tea does, indeed, begin in China during the Han Dynasty (206-220 B.C.). At this time, tea ware was made of porcelain and consisted of two styles: a northern white porcelain and a southern light blue porcelain. It is important to understand that these ancient tea sets were not the creamer/sugar bowl companions we know today. Rather, as is stated in a third century A.D. written document from China, tea leaves were pressed into cakes or bricks. These patties were then crushed and mixed with a variety of spices, including orange, ginger, onions, and flower petals. Hot water was poured over the mixture, which was both heated and served in bowls, not teapots. The bowls were multi-purpose, and used for a variety of cooking needs. In this period, evidence suggests that tea was mainly used as a medicinal elixir, not as a daily drink for pleasure's sake.

It is in the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) that historians believe the world saw the birth of the teapot. An archaeological dig turned up an ancient kiln which contained the remnants of a Yixing teapot. Yixing teapots, called Zi Sha Hu in China and Purple Sand teapots in the U.S., are perhaps the most famous teapots the world has ever known. They are named for a tiny city located in the Jiangsu Provence, where a specific compound of iron ore results in the unique coloration of these teapots. Exquisite ceramic teapots and tea bowls date to the Song Dynasty in glazes of brown, black, and blue. A bamboo whisk was employed to beat the tea into a frothy confection highly prized by the Chinese.

It was the nobility of the Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.) who seemed to have latched on to tea drinking most steadfastly and they are credited with causing tea to become China's national drink. In 780 A.D., an orphan named Lu Yu, who was raised by Buddhist monks, wrote the world's first definitive book on tea: the Ch'a Ching (Ch'a meaning tea). As a youth, Lu Yu was of a rebellious nature, and seems to have had difficulty with the vital Buddhist teachings of obedience and discipline. He went into seclusion for five years, and spent the time reflecting on his broad experience gained from traveling, most particularly his observation of the various methods of cultivating and preparing tea. By compiling this extensive body of information into a single written work, Lu Yu rose to the heights of fame and came to be called the "tea saint".

It was Lu Yu's book that made its way to Japan via Zen Buddhist missionaries who created the stately Chanoyu, the tea ceremony, which was adopted by the Imperial Japanese court. It is, in fact, greatly owing to Buddhist priests that tea cultivation spread throughout China and Japan with such rapidity.

Tea has long been associated with intellectualism, so much so that the great Emperor Hui Tsung did not think it beneath his dignity to write a sort of monograph on the best methods of preparing whisked tea in the early 12th century. He was something of a patron saint of the tea industry, and held tea tasting events which were something akin to the rather snobby wine tasting affairs held today in the world's great wine growing regions. The Emperor's guests were challenged to identify various types of tea by taste. During this period, charming tea houses were built on the grounds of many upper class Chinese. It may be myth or fact, but it has been said that Hui Tsung was so preoccupied with drinking tea, he took little notice of the fact that the Mongolians had arrived to destroy his empire.

When Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan arrived in China, conquering much of its territory, they were quick to adopt the tea habit. History suggests that it was during the century-long Mongolian dynasty that tea made its way into the homes of the common Chinese people.

The popularity of tea during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) is attested to by the vast number of tea sets which survive from this period. In fact, it was erroneously believed for some time that Yixing teapots date to this time, because of the large quantity of artifacts discovered. What is known is that important changes in the preparation of tea took place during the Ming Dynasty. Rather than crushing tea cakes, Ming Dynasty Chinese began steeping whole tea leaves in water. This brewed a paler beverage which was much admired and tea ware of that time was stylized to contrast effectively with the light tea color. Korea, in particular, has some excellent examples of beautiful tea cups from this era with white inlaid designs of clouds, cranes, and other popular motifs.

Tea sets come to Europe, America and the history of tea culture evolves to the present.

It is believed that the first European to drink tea with the Chinese was a Portuguese Jesuit missionary named Father Jasper de Cruz. Portugal boasted some of the finest ships of the 16th century, and had opened ocean routes to China. Father de Cruz encountered tea in 1560 and documented the fact in writing. Prior to this, only the merest of oral rumor had reached Europe via land going caravans, but the members of these expeditions appear to have been confused as to the uses of tea leaves. Documents suggest some thought them to be served like vegetables, with salt and butter. What we do know is that the first tea sets found their way to Europe via the Portuguese trade routes, as did the first exotic taste of tea in the 1600's. Because of the political alliance between Portugal and Holland in that age, some of these curious items reached the Netherlands and sparked a tea frenzy.

If you, as a modern tea drinker, are accustomed to purchasing a nice box of tea for somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 to $6, imagine living in the 17th century Dutch capitol and having to come up with $100 to purchase a pound of tea. Prices like these made tea the drink of the wealthy, and the first European tea sets consisted of tiny teapots and tea cups. The great houses of Holland featured fashionable tea rooms and the Dutch are thought to be the first to have added milk to tea. It helps to put things into perspective to understand that, in this age, commodities such as sugar and ginger were seen as rare wonders brought as if by magic from foreign lands. The Dutch were the first to serve tea in public restaurants and taverns where guests were supplied with portable tea sets. They took these out into the inn's garden, where they prepared the tea for their friends, al fresco.

Simultaneously, Russia was having its own tea craze. In 1618, Czar Alexis was presented with chests of tea by the Chinese embassy in Moscow. The trade treaty of New Chinsk in 1689 established a border between Russia and China, enabling camel caravans to cross from one country to the other. Russian tea service centered on the samovar, an adaptation of the Tibetan hot-pot. These massive tea vessels were capable of dispensing nearly 50 cups of tea at a time, and no fine home was without its samovar.

In the west, trade techniques continued to improve, and by 1675, tea had become widely available in Holland and much of Europe. Prices fell and controversy rose as doctors and scholars waged verbal wars with one another over the benefits and drawbacks of tea consumption. All of western Europe was experiencing a new and ecstatic interest in the 'Orient', and Asian goods and customs became the height of fashion. In 1680, the Marquise de Seven, a leading social critic of her time, first advocated the addition of a creamer to the tea service and the sugar basket was soon to follow. It was during the reign of Queen Anne (early 18th century) that silver sugar baskets were first offered to guests. The first silver sugar bowls featured rounded bases, disk-like covers, and three little feet. Silver creamers also date to this period, and by the mid-18th century, something like the tea set that we know today had arrived on the tables of Europe and America.

The earliest known silver teapot was made in 1627, and it is not until the reign of George II (1727-1759) that more generously-sized teapots found their way into the western marketplace. The determining factor in this was, of course, the price of tea. Silver cups and saucers exist from as early as 1648, and due to Chinese influence, they are without handles. The first mention of silver tea kettles comes from a documentation of a kettle created in 1687 by royal warrant. Our earliest examples of children's tea sets come from this time. They were crafted of copper and pewter in Germany.

The Dutchman, Peter Stuyvesant, brought the first taste of tea to the colonists of New Amsterdam (New York) in the mid-1600s. In the New World, a scarcity of skilled artisans and materials resulted in early American pottery being of the crudest and most functional nature. Like tea itself, most fine wares had to be imported at excessive costs and every American knows about the Boston Tea Party affair of 1773. For a time, tea fell out of favor in the colonies. It was, however, to regain its prestige over time.

Though the first complete silver tea service with sugar bowl and creamer was presented to the public in 1790, it was not until Queen Victoria's reign that the modern six piece tea service arrived. The Queen certainly loved tea, and her tea service included teapot, creamer, sugar bowl, tea kettle, coffee pot, and waste bowl. From this point on, the only major innovations in tea drinking have been the invention of the tea bag and, less gloriously, of instant tea powder.

In conclusion, the next time you get out your trusty tea set, why not spend a moment reflecting on the distant people and lands whose efforts have brought this wonderful beverage to you. Surely there is great wonder and wisdom in this drink of the ages.

*See also Tea Set at Wikipedia


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