History Of The Teapot

People around the world have been drinking tea for centuries, yet the teapot came into existence only aroun...

History Of The Teapot
People around the world have been drinking tea for centuries, yet the teapot came into existence only around 500 years ago. So, how did people drink tea before the teapot? And how did the teapot come to be? Experts generally agree that the teapot dates back to around 1500 AD, with the emergence of Yixing teapots in China. Using the iconic purple and red clay from Yixing in the eastern province of Jiangsu, potters crafted small individual teapots with the handle and spout design we know today.

A famous characteristic of Yixing teapots is their ability to absorb the smell and flavour of the tea, which conditions the teapot over time. The porosity of the clay means that the teapot becomes seasoned after repeated use, adding to the flavour of each new brew. Because of this, users typically brew only one type of tea in each teapot to keep the flavour of the tea pure.

Long before the Yixing teapot, people drank tea as a paste of roasted leaves ground with other ingredients and dried into tablets that dissolved in a teacup – much like a stock cube. As James Norwood Pratt, one of the world’s foremost tea authorities, writes in The Tea Lover’s Treasury, “The teapot has not always been the undisputed lord of the tea service; historically, the teacup comes first.”

The handcrafted Yixing teapot inspired a new era of Japanese artisans who turned to the Chinese potters to learn their methods. Japan’s province of Bizen consequently became a centre for ceramics, and the area’s famous Raku ware – the rough and dark earthenware used in tea ceremonies – spelled the next evolution of the teapot.

In Teapots Through The Ages, Laura Everage explains how teapots made their way from East to West influencing a completely new style of pottery in their wake. “Before tea ever reached the Western world, it spread from China and Japan throughout Asia, reaching Burma and Siam as well as Sumatra and Java. It was, however, the spread of Yixing teapots that not only greatly influenced the forms of others found throughout the world, but also prompted the invention of hard-paste porcelain in the Western world.”

In The Tea Lover’s Treasury, Pratt explains that the spread of teapots from China and Japan to the world not only unleashed a new culture of tea drinking, but also a new form of ceramic production that we know today as ‘fine china’. “Second only to tea, perhaps the most important contribution China made to European life was ‘china’ itself – the hard, translucent glazed pottery the Chinese had invented under the T’ang Dynasty and which we also know as porcelain.”

It was around 100 years later that Europe’s thirst for Asia’s tea culture developed. Influenced by the East India Company, which shipped tea and teapots from China to the UK and British colonies, the British began drinking tea. However, they continued to drink it from imported teapots as these were more durable than the fragile European earthenware that was around at the time (and which often exploded when boiling water was poured into them).

It wasn’t until German alchemist Johan Bottger became the first European to master the style of high-fired porcelain and opened the first porcelain factory in Europe at Meissen that the market for European teapots took off. During this era of global industrialisation, a middle class emerged keen to emulate the tea-drinking ways of the elite. Tea drinking spread throughout society and with it was born the British ritual of afternoon tea.

Everage explains that to meet the growing demand for teapots in the middle class, artist-merchants, including Josiah Wedgwood and Josiah Spode, quickly responded with their version of the teapot. This set off a flurry of tea pot design that is the hallmark of British teapots. According to art historian Garth Clark in The Eccentric Teapot, “The exploration of teapot forms was never carried to the same level of obsession as it was in England. From 1750 onwards this small island dominated the art of creating teapots.”

Fantastical teapots shaped into everything from animals to humans, painted with bucolic scenes, decorated with Asian flower motifs and even fashioned from silver emerged as the teapot became highly fashionable. However, by the reign of Queen Victoria, tea had become a ubiquitous staple in British households, and a new style of teapot emerged to match this quotidian utility. With her simple design, round curves, pert spout, ergonomic handle and dark brown glaze that hides tea stains, the Brown Betty is considered the quintessential British teapot.
Brown Betty Teapot
Image Credit: Tea Happiness

Various ceramics manufacturers made Brown Betty teapots but with different distinguishing characteristics. They are made in Staffordshire from a special red clay found only in the area. They have a distinctive globe shape, and the curve of the handle aims to keep your knuckles safe from the hot belly of the pot while you’re holding it. Once fired, the teapots are dipped in a Rockingham glaze, which gives them their characteristic brownish colour that helps hide tea stains and makes them more durable.

The tea party even spread to America, where tea became the source of political protest. Frustrated and angry at Britain for imposing taxation without representation, American colonists dumped chests of tea, imported by the British East India Company, into Boston Harbour in Massachusetts. Politics aside, tea drinking became as American as apple pie in the 1800s, and the American pottery industry, influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, started to produce decorative teapots depicting American landscapes. As with the simple design of the Brown Betty, Fiestaware in post-war America saw the evolution of a more pared-back design, and the Fiesta teapot, which came in a range of bold-coloured glazes, became a staple in US homes.

At the same time tea was taking off in America, the tea bag was accidentally invented. Accidentally, because in 1908, American tea merchant Thomas Sullivan started to send samples of his tea to customers in small silken bags, and some assumed these were supposed to go straight into the pot rather than emptying out the contents into the metal tea strainers that were de rigueur. Following on from the appeal of the silk tea bags, Sullivan then developed finer sachets made from gauze with later designs using paper, and the tea bag proliferated in the USA.

Today, greater awareness of sustainability and campaigns to reduce single-use plastics, such as Plastic Free July, have seen the rise of loose-leaf teas, teapots and tea infusers. They are coming back into fashion! Although there are many designs to choose from based on aesthetics, it seems the tea industry has come full circle. Today, tea drinkers are opting to brew their cuppa the old way – whether it’s in a Japanese tetsubin cast-iron teapot or a Wedgewood English bone-china teapot – or with a more 21st-century approach, with a modern glass-walled infuser.

Here are some common questions – and our answers – for the tea curious.

1. Can you use a cast-iron teapot on the stove?
Traditionally, people used the Japanese cast-iron teapot, the tetsubin, to boil water to pour into teapots for tea ceremonies. Original models did not have an enamel interior. Today, people use replicas of this ancient vessel as teapots, but these modern models have an enamel coating that would crack and leak iron into your tea if you put it on the direct heat of the stove. Use cast-iron as you would ceramic teapots – adding loose-leaf tea and boiling water to the pot.

2. How should you clean a teapot?
The rinse-and-dry method is sufficient with most teapots, but, if the pot is a lighter colour, the build-up of tea tannins becomes evident, and it will need an occasional scrubbing. Dish detergents and a cloth will take care of most stains; however, if the pot has been neglected for some time, a bit of white vinegar or a denture cleaner can help remove the stain build-up. Iron teapots today are coated with a product that protects them from rust. That’s one reason you never scrub the interior of these pots with an abrasive cleaner or pad: you don’t want to damage that protective layer. Simply wash the teapot, allow it to drain completely, and wipe it inside and out with a dry cloth. Rinse and air-dry Yixing teapots, as you want the tea coating to build up on the teapot’s interior. The Boston Tea Party Museum shares some tea folklore about Yixing pots: “It’s said that some ancient Yixing pots could make tea today simply by having water poured into them. The accumulated flavours of past steepings would add their flavour to the water and tea would magically appear!”

3. What teapots are best for making tea?
Although the form of a teapot comes down to personal preference, the function of a teapot is to keep your tea warm, whether you’re buttering up your second scone or leafing through the weekend newspaper. Porcelain is non-porous and holds the temperature of the tea well, so use it for any type of tea, from black to green. Yixing clay pots are ideal for brewing the same tea over and over again to build up that flavour memory and are best-known for black tea, puer and oolongs. Glass teapots have a modern design that allows you to admire the hue of your brew, and glass infusers are the perfect midpoint between the teacup and the teapot – you simply add your tea and hot water, and can drink your tea directly from the vessel.