Tea Time

By Karen Parr-Moody 


Tea has been a drink of medicine and meditation for nearly 5,000 years. But when it developed into "tea time," an ornate ritual of mid-1800s Victorian England, that was when it acquired the beautiful accoutrements that antique collectors know and love. 


It was Catherine de Braganza of Portugal who first brought chests of tea to England when she married Charles II in 1663. Her dowry, the handsomest ever recorded in modern history, included trunks of tea leaves. Charles and Catherine’s love of the drink quickly affected the upper classes. The British tea trade soon followed in the 1670s, with the development of the British East India Company. By 1700, tea was sold in 500 coffeehouses and tea retail shops in London alone.


"Tea time" is another story. It had to do with gas and oil light being brought to English homes during the 1800s. Prior to this time, the two main meals were eating during daytime hours, at breakfast and then a mid-day dinner. Due to the light situation, people went to bed early at this time. When artificial lighting arrived, the entire organization of the day was changed, with dinners of the fashionable upper classes taking place as late as 9 p.m. Certainly, later hours meant a later start to the day, but this still left a food gap around mid-day. As the legend goes, it was in 1840 that one of Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting, a Duchess of Bedford, who began to request tea and baked goods from her servants in the afternoon. She invited friends over, but rather than eating at a dinner table, they would simply socialize in a drawing room around low side tables (hence the moniker "low tea"). By the 1880s, this social hour was a full-blown trend among the upper classes and it was reflected in the tea shops and in the accoutrements and pastries of tea time. 


The ironstone cream and sugar tray in the photo, above right, would have made for a convenient way to serve tea in a middle-class household of "low tea" era ($49; B-113). The hardened earthenware known a ironstone was first patented in 1813 by Charles Mason, a maker of bone china. Ironstone was a forerunner to Tupperware or Pyrex, and would have been considered a sensible way to serve tea. This was certainly not the sort of set that the Duchess of Bedford would have had her servants used when inviting her friends over to join her in, unwittingly, establishing the historic tradition of afternoon tea. But ironstone is certainly collectible today. 


The earliest teapots from China were made of clay. By the 1700s in England, teapots were made in silver by artisans. Since it was well before the Industrial Revolution, such items were made by hand. Silver was considered a smart investment by the English gentry, as well as being a symbol of status and wealth. Teapots first took their design cues from the Chinese, and were small and round. As time went by, they became more elegant and elongated. Still, components of the overall "tea time" did not match. A standard 5- or 6-piece "tea and coffee service," as the one seen in the photo, left, was rarely seen before the 1800s. This particular set is a silverplate version by 1847 Rogers that was made in 1948; the pattern is called "Remembrance" ($279.95; Booth B-219). 

As the popularity of tea raged on throughout the 1800s, an array of silver tea-related items could be found in England and in America, including sugar nips, sugar tongs, tea caddies, and mote spoons. It should come as no surprise that sterling and silver tea infusers (also called "tea balls") were most popular during the Victorian time frame, what with their table accoutrements (no other culture, before or since, has been known to have a specific fork for strawberries). The varieties in shapes and sizes during that time are extensive. At GasLamp, the booth B-119 is positively flush with tea spoons, as seen in the photo at right. The range includes those for the common man and those for the landed gentry, and prices go from $4 to $38. 


Unfortunately for silversmiths, New York tea merchant unwittingly ended the viability of the tea infuser when, in 1908, he put his tea samples in silk bags and sent them to his customers. The disposable tea bag had arrived; that reason alone is enough to make collectors treasure the craftsmanship of the early infusers. 


Both tea and coffee have been served in small cups called "demitasse" cups (the word is French for "half cup"). These dainty cups, as seen in the photo, left, can be found in many varied styles and from many different eras, although they are believed to have been introduced in France (each cup and saucer, $18; Booth B-115). They can be made of various materials, including bone china or even glass set in metal frames. Another beverage often served in such a cup is the full-bodied Turkish coffee, which is brewed with dissolved sugar and contains a trace of fine coffee particulates in the finished drink. 






Another hot drink that required a specific accoutrement was hot chocolate, which had its roots in ancient Mayan culture, but was reintroduced during the mid-17th century, at which time early English chocolate pots arrived on the scene. Chocolate pots were often made of silver, with the family crest stamped into the side. They went on to be made in copper, china and porcelain, with floral decorations being especially popular.  The pot in the photo, right, is marked with a crown-and-wreath mark that was used by the Noritake factory on Chikaramachi Street in Nagoya, Japan. This mark was registered in 1928 and was used for several years, so this particular pot, which is hand-painted, dates to that time period.


Indulging in the elegance of Victorian afternoon tea goes way beyond the crumpets, scones with Devonshire cream, and gingerbread. These decadent desserts fairly cry out for the proper tableware to accompany the Earl Grey. And with a quick browse at GasLamp, one is surely to find all of the dainty accoutrements that one needs. 

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