Thursday, May 31, 2018

When Tea Bowls Became Tea Cups

A Family of Three at Tea (in the collection of the V&A Museum, London)

Throughout the long history of tea drinking in China, small bowls were used as the vessel of choice for holding this hot beverage.  When tea was first brought to the West in the 17th century these tea bowls were introduced to the Western world.  Such bowls were used for drinking tea at that time. Since the tea bowls were hot, various hand positions were used to hold the bowls comfortably.  These hand positions are shown in various paintings of the era.

It was not until the mid 18th century that European porcelain manufacturers began producing some of their tea bowls with handles attached. According to Jane Pettigrew in her book, Design for Tea: Tea Wares from the Dragon Court to Afternoon Tea (2004), the addition of a handle to tea bowls was inspired by the handles of the English "posset cup," a double handled cup used for hot beverages in 17th and 18th century England.

The European-made tea cups were also larger than their Chinese forebears.  The larger cup size accommodated the new habit of adding milk and sugar to tea.  Once source attributes this new habit of drinking tea with milk and sugar to Dutch influence of the time. Another source claims that it was a Parisian innovation.  In any case, tea drinking took new forms as it reached new audiences in the West.

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Maira Gall