Tea

Massimo Campigli Charcoal Drawing, signed 1938, Women Having Tea

p4A ItemID F7960027
Katherine Bradford Gouache Painting, 1988, Spring Green

p4A ItemID F7959814
Jean Tinguely Collage & Ink Drawing, signed, Figures & Mechanical Items

p4A ItemID F7959311
Betty Parsons Gouache Painting, signed 1956, Abstract Shapes

p4A ItemID F7959188

Crazy for Tea

We’ve all seen the movies depicting English life in the 19th and early 20th centuries where a charming hostess calls on Flora, the parlor maid, to lay the tea for company. Flora soon reappears with a gleaming tea service and a plate of crumbly biscuits and sandwiches, and then retreats leaving the guests sipping and chatting. This English, and later the American, infatuation with tea may be easier to understand with a bit of history. It all began in 1664, when an English ship visiting the Chinese port of Canton embarked with a two pound package of the leaves, as part of its cargo. By the early 18th century, despite the high cost, (As much as ten English pounds per pound, at a time when a housemaid earned as little as three pounds a year.) England had become a nation of tea drinkers. By 1760, the price of tea had declined to about ten shillings a pound, and the American Colonies consumed 1.2 million pounds to satisfy their thirst. When some citizens of Boston dumped 342 chests of tea into the harbor on December 16, 1773 to protest the English imposition of taxes, serious American tea fanciers must have been distressed. The tea in those waterlogged chests had been compressed into dense bricks which allowed for larger quantities to fit into the limited space in the sailing ships’ holds.

The ceremonial part of drinking tea became woven into the fabric of 18th and 19th century English life, first among the wealthy class, and later adopted by the middle and lower classes. Entrepreneurs of all stripes recognized an opportunity. They produced an amazing array of equipage to make imbibing the beverage enjoyable. First you would need a secure place to store your expensive tea after its purchase from an importer. Tea caddies, small boxes fitted with locks, and often with two lidded interior compartments were made from exotic woods and other materials. The earliest caddies from the 17th and 18th centuries were ornate single silver containers. Fortunately, they were so abundant that many of these lovely boxes have survived and are now sought after collectibles.

Serving tea required a teapot for brewing the beverage; a bowl to hold sugar, and a small pitcher for dispensing cream. English silversmiths and potters filled the demand creating simple designs at first, and then more highly decorated examples. But to make an impression a noble or wealthy host would add a large silver kettle on a stand or a tea urn for reserve hot water and a grand silver tray to hold the lot and protect the supporting furniture. About 1800, Sheffield silver plate manufacturers innovated by introducing a “tea machine” to serve large gatherings. Existing examples of these contraptions were fitted with a central raised hot water urn and a pair of lower and smaller urns with spouts offering brewed tea and coffee. Originally, because of the expense, the beverage was drunk weak and in small silver or gold cups, but as the heat conducting properties of these metals proved impractical, small porcelain cups, like those used in China and Japan were substituted. Porcelain factories all over Europe produced handsome services to compete with silver and silver plate. At the same time porcelain from China, made for the English taste, was delivered in the ships which carried the tea, thus offering an exotic choice to the public.

Small silver tea caddy spoons were the preferred implement for scooping the tea out of the caddy. About four inches in length, they have a broad shaped bowl, often in the form of a shell. The mote spoon sports a long handle with a narrow pierced bowl on one end for scooping stray tea leaves from the surface of the liquid, and a pointed tip on the other end for dislodging leaves caught in the teapot’s strainer. Even today tea strainers make a practical gift for the purist who brews from the loose leaves. The strainer, with pierced bowl and long handle rests on the teacup edge, and neatly catches the errant leaves, while the tea passes through. Then there is the practical Victorian tea cozy, made from padded silk or more humble fabric, which is placed over the teapot to retain its warmth. One of the more amusing objects used in tea service is the cow creamer. Usually found in silver or pottery, the tail forms a loop handle and the open mouth of the willing bovine is the spout. Examples from the 19th century are rare and very desirable; but reproductions now can be found in almost every gift shop.

Tea is so commonplace today, it’s hard to imagine the enormous social impact it had on dining in the early 19th century. Heretofore, the main meal of the day took place in the middle of the day. The custom of taking tea moved the dinner hour later until the Regency period, (1800-1820), it was often as late as 8 or 9 P.M. After dinner, when the ladies retired, the gentlemen took to their wine and pipes and billiards, after which another meal was served with tea and coffee. Talk about overindulgence. Collecting tea paraphernalia can be an interesting pastime, since almost everything can be used today. Even a collection of teaspoons displaying the evolution of styles can provide a topic for after dinner conversation. In this era of the teabag, developing a passion for such a mundane drink seems out of place and time. Fortunately tea related antiques are still here to remind us of that period when the thought of a cup of tea could set a person’s pulse racing. Part of the early attraction of tea was its presumed vast curative powers. It seems that current research may prove those beliefs to be true.

Reference note by Robert H. Goldberg, p4A editor and an Accredited Senior Member of the American Society of Appraisers from New Orleans, specializing in the appraisal of antiques and residential contents, October 2008.


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