Recently, I have been spending a good bit of time at the British Museum in London. It has one of the largest and most renowned museum collections in the world, but while it may be better known for antiquities such as the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone, I have been discovering that it also has hundreds of teapots among its collections.
It not only has teapots, but tea sets, one of which I am particularly fond. It was featured on the popular series ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects.’ This radio series in partnership with the BBC used 100 objects from the museum’s collection to highlight cultural trends of different eras from across the globe that helped create the world we know today. Fittingly, since the world I know definitely wouldn’t be the same without tea, object #92 is an early Victorian tea set.
The tea set consists of a teapot, milk jug, and sugar bowl (described on the series as “the holy trinity of afternoon tea”), and was manufactured by Josiah Wedgewood’s pottery firm, c.1840-45. The set is made from red stoneware with hand-cut, open latticed silverwork. I managed to get a fairly decent photo of the set on display.
Although the use of silver implies a consumer base of a certain class, the red stoneware base indicates that this was a mid-range tea set reflecting the much wider market for tea that emerged during the nineteenth century; tea, and tea sets, were no longer elite luxury items. Part of the series’ theme of ‘Mass Production, Mass Persuasion AD 1780-1914’, this tea set was selected because it speaks to the global trade networks set up by the British Empire and the socio-cultural, as well as economic, impact that these networks had. The tea that would have been used in this tea set is, of course, the most obvious element, imported to Britain from various parts of the British Empire. However, interestingly, the red stoneware from which the tea set is made was also imported to Britain from China. The sugar for the sugar bowl would have been another import, and the milk, although not imported, would have arrived in the cities via the new railway networks from rural areas. Thus, this humble tea set is indeed what the series describes as “a three-piece social history of nineteenth century Britain,” but a history whose impact spread far beyond Britain.
This beautiful tea set is a good reminder that the history of tea is present not only in the tea we drink but in the teawares we drink it from, and that this history is deeply intertwined with the complex social, economic, and political strands of global historical events.
See more of Elise Nuding’s articles here.
© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.