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The History of the Teapot

The tea plant (Camelia Sinensis) was first discovered and then cultivated in China over 3,000 years ago, but the leaves weren’t originally boiled — instead, they were typically either chewed or ground into a fine powder and combined with hot water. It wasn’t until the 14th century, during the Yuan Dynasty, that the method of steeping tea leaves in hot water caught on. As this new method spread across China, a special vessel was invented for brewing tea — the teapot. The earliest teapots were made from purple zisha clay and porcelain. Tea — and the teapot — spread via a network of trade routes called the ‘tea horse road’ to Tibet, Nepal, and throughout the Himalayan region beginning in the 7th century. Europeans didn’t encounter tea — and teapots — until the 17th century, when Portuguese, Dutch, and British merchants began to export tea out of China and Japan via sailing ships. Early European teapots were similar to early coffee pots and featured tapered, cylindrical bodies paired with conical lids and spouts set at right angles. Due to political turmoil, China’s porcelain industry saw a sharp downturn in the mid-17th century and Japan took up the mantle instead. Various teapots and utensils were made for use within Japan during the famous Japanese Tea Ceremony, but Japanese teaware was also exported. In fact, Japanese porcelain was introduced the Europe by the Dutch East India Company. Elaborately decorated teapots decorated in the Kakiemon style and featuring brightly colored enamels became all the rage among Europe’s elite. By the late 17th century, the English also began making their own teapots. Typically made out of silver, most English teapots featured pear-shaped, oblong bodies similar to the earliest Chinese teapots as well as acorn-shaped decorative tops. Serving tea became a practice among upper-class British ladies in the beginning of the 18th century and this created a stronger demand for teapots and teacups. Many tea sets were decorated in the Chinoiserie style (which featured European interpretations of Chinese décor) but Rococo and Neoclassical designs were also used. One popular design featured a young Black slave boy serving tea to an upper-class British couple, a motif that indicates how the British Empire’s wealth and cultural practices (such as drinking tea prepared with milk and sugar cubes out of elaborately decorated teapots and teacups) were made possible by slavery, exploitation, and colonialism. Around the same time, the Dutch developed teapots that could be placed on special stands. In the 19th century, innovations in materials and more affordable tea (which made it accessible to all citizens) led to simpler teapots made from inexpensive metals. These new utilitarian designs also allowed tea service to take place in railcars and on steamships. Even simpler, more streamlined teapot designs became popular in the postwar period. Today, the use of a teapot is much less common, as most people simply drop a teabag directly into their mug, but it has not fallen out of fashion completely and many people continue to use and collect them today.

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