The Origins of Porcelain Tea Sets

The porcelain tea set is an item everyone is familiar with – they conjure up images of afternoon teas at hotels and high society homes, lead us to imagine tea dates both present and centuries past, and children even play pretend with their own versions (in plastic, of course).

How is it that porcelain tea sets became so synonymous with drinking tea, no matter the occasion or type of tea? This famous type of tea set has a long and storied history throughout the world and its many eras. From the tables and teatimes of European nobility to the average American living room, here is how porcelain tea sets became a staple in the world of tea.

Porcelain’s Humble Origins

The prominence of porcelain tea sets shares a background with tea itself: both got their start in the nation of China, as Emerson Creek Pottery explains. When tea was first discovered during China’s Han Dynasty of 206 to 220 B.C., it needed vessels from which to be poured and sipped. The first “tea sets” were born – and they were crafted from porcelain.

A plain white porcelain tea pot.
Here’s a plain white porcelain tea pot on a nice background, via myteabreakblog.wordpress.com.

Residents of northern China prepared and drank their tea from white porcelain, while those in the southern regions used porcelain in shades of light blue. Of course, these first porcelain tea sets weren’t anything like the flower-decorated and delicate cups and pots familiar to tea drinkers today. There were no creamer or sugar bowls, nor traditional tea pots to be found; instead, Chinese tea drinkers drank only the leaves, herbs, and flowers steeped in water, with no additives included.

The teapot did make its first appearance in early variations of porcelain tea sets, though. Centuries later, during China’s Song Dynasty of 960 to 1279 A.D., the most famous of all teapots came into existence.

The Yixing teapot was created in the Jiangsu Provence, thanks to iron ore and its unique coloring once oxidized. Residents of this region in China began crafting ceramic teapots and matching bowls in brown, black, and even blue shades, giving tea sets exciting and beautiful customized colors and patterns. As tea grew increasingly popular throughout China, ultimately taking reign as the drink of the nation, so too did the tea set.

The Tea Set Arrives in Europe

Though it took a few centuries, tea did make its way to Europe – and it was thanks to Father Jasper de Cruz, a missionary from Portugal who first drank tea with Chinese citizens. Thanks to new trading routes, and a growing trade agreement with China, Europe finally had access to tea in the 1500s.

It was those trade routes that brought the tea set to Portugal, and eventually all of Europe. From Portugal, the trend of drinking tea and using porcelain tea sets spread to the Netherlands.

Here's an antique Chinese porcelain tea pot, source unknown.
Here’s an antique Chinese porcelain tea pot, source unknown.

When tea first sparked interest in Europe, it was a pricey treat. Purchasing a pound of tea cost about $100, meaning only the wealthy were able to afford the privilege of sipping tea. Tea sets followed suit: instead of being crafted by hand in the kilns of China, they became small and delicate items. Europeans drank their tea from tiny cups, sitting in fancy tea rooms designed solely for tea drinking.

As the tea craze made its way into every European nation, the tea sets with which this new and exciting drink was served began to change. During the 1700s, the English monarchy made perhaps the most significant alterations to the traditional porcelain sets originated by the Chinese people. Queen Anne introduced silver teapots and silver sugar bowls, and Queen Victoria brought today’s six-piece tea set into existence. And, of course, as tea became the drink of the wealthy throughout Europe, the practice of drinking tea itself became a fancy affair.

The Porcelain Tea Set of Today is Everywhere

Porcelain tea sets have lasted throughout every era of history, and they’re still present in our dining rooms, living rooms, and kitchens today. Whether as a centerpiece during an afternoon tea event, or resting in the background of your kitchen, a porcelain tea set hearkens back to those earliest days of drinking tea – the ceremony, and the care with which tea has been served throughout the years. Although pouring a cup of tea doesn’t often come with much care or even time nowadays, there’s still something wonderful about carrying out a tray filled with beautifully decorated porcelain cups and a teapot, no matter how you enjoy your tea.

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