Why Is That Cream Pitcher So Big?

As a fan and long-time buyer of Joni Miller’s The Collectible Teapot Calendar, I have seen some amazing tea photos. In several of them, such as April 2013, the cream pitcher was almost as large as the teapot. Gee, why would the cream pitcher be that big? Time to delve into the history of tea.

Vintage Czech Style lusterware teapot and creamer — a close match in size. (screen capture from site)
Vintage Czech Style lusterware teapot and creamer — a close match in size. (screen capture from site)

Once upon a time, tea was grown almost exclusively in China. The Chinese guarded the tea plant and its secrets very carefully and traded that precious product with other countries. Eventually, Europeans discovered this tea and developed a taste for it. But that tea was expensive since it was only produced in China and had to travel a long way to Europe where the customers were. The tea had to be stored carefully and could spoil during the trip. Black tea, which was fully oxidized and therefore would last better on the long voyage from producer to consumer, became the main type of tea served.

At some point a guy from Scotland figured a way to smuggle some tea plants out of China with the intention of growing them in India, which was an important part of the British Empire at that time. Lo and behold, they discovered that another variety of the tea plant was already being cultivated in the Assam area of India. This quickly became the tea exported to the British Isles and other locations. One drawback: black tea can be more bitter and astringent, especially the way the British steeped it (boiling water and steep 5 minutes).

Add to that taste drawback those hoity-toity eggshell-thin bone china teacups that the upper echelons of society were using to imbibe that bitter brew. Chilly bone china + piping hot tea = CRACK!

So, you have an expensive, bitter, and very hot liquid meeting that expensive, extremely delicate teacup. Not a good combo. Enter milk (or cream for some tea drinkers). It stretches out the tea by several cupfuls, making a small pot serve the whole troupe of ladies in waiting. Milk/cream was also a way to smooth the tea’s “rough edges.” It covered up that bitter, astringent, “surprise ending” in that cuppa.

These days, many folks still take milk in their tea, so that cream pitcher can still be a bit large. But then there are those of us who go straight for that milk bottle in the refrigerator instead, eliminating the “middleman.”

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

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