Why Do Some Teacups Have Feet?

Awhile back, a regular reader of this blog asked about teacup designs, having seen some of the articles about teapot styles. That led me to wondering about something that has puzzled tea drinkers like that reader and me for a long time: why do some teacups have feet?

First of all, this is not like that joke “Why do feet smell and noses run?” This is a serious look at teacups that could cut and run at a moment’s notice — oh, wait, it’s not that kind of feet.

When looking into this whole topic, the first thing I discovered was that people used the word “pedestal” and “foot” interchangeably for teacups. But from what I saw, there is a distinct difference.

A true footed teacup:

China vintage Iridescent Footed Gold Cut-out TEA CUP & SAUCER Japan (Photo source: Yahoo! Images)
China vintage Iridescent Footed Gold Cut-out TEA CUP & SAUCER Japan (Photo source: Yahoo! Images)

A true pedestal teacup:

Vintage Tea Cup and Saucer by FrancesAttic on Etsy (Photo source: Yahoo! Images)
Vintage Tea Cup and Saucer by FrancesAttic on Etsy (Photo source: Yahoo! Images)

A hybrid teacup:

Albothe & Kaiser Footed Tea Cup and Saucer Set “Marion” (Photo source: Yahoo! Images)
Albothe & Kaiser Footed Tea Cup and Saucer Set “Marion” (Photo source: Yahoo! Images)

Teacups were often imported from China along with the tea and were the kind without handles, held by the thumb and forefinger at the lip and base of the cup. But since tea drinkers were usually members of the upper echelons of society, considering the high cost of tea at that time, a less finger-scorching and more refined way of holding the teacup was needed. So, craftsmen in Europe began working on making teacups that could take the heat of the tea and that would have a handle. Silver was the first option explored but since it also retained heat well, the cups could be still be too hot to hold. Porcelain was developed in the late 1600s as a replacement, but care had to be taken not to crack them with the hot tea. Adding a little milk into the cup first was started as a way around this.

Designers made their teacups in styles to match the times. And they also competed to create unique designs for those sophisticated tea drinkers who wanted the perfect teacups to impress their guests and serve as conversation pieces. To add to the height and overall delicate air of teacups while keeping the ideal proportions of wide and shallow for the bowl, these craftsmen had to think fast. Something added to the cup’s bottom was seen as a better alternative to making the cup bowl taller. (Generally, teacups are best when they have a wider, shorter body, as the examples shown above do.) Pedestals were one solution and were an extension of the normal base of the cup. Little feet were the other solution; there were sometimes three and sometimes four. These were added on by the potter and were more prone to breaking off during use. The hybrid design is basically a pedestal with broader feet.

You can find teacups with pedestals, feet, and a hybrid of both in antique stores but also made new. The dainty air of these cups keeps them eternally popular. Add a few to your collection. Then, when you hear that pitter patter of little feet, it might just be your teacups!

See more of A.C. Cargill’s articles here.

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5 thoughts on “Why Do Some Teacups Have Feet?

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  4. Interesting how the addition of a handle was a sign of higher society. Not sure if this is relevant, but if anyone has seen the 2006 Marie Antoinette movie, Kirsten Dunst in many scenes was holding a teacup like a Chinese style cup when it clearly had handles. Could this have been a sign of “lower class” for the character or more possibly the actress was never accustomed to European style teacups?

    1. A.C. Cargill

      More likely that she was doing something to make her character quirky. Just a guess on my part. Thanks for reading. 🙂

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