Tea Time Anyone?

By Leon Castner

Tea has been a very important drink to the people of our country, although perhaps not quite as popular as in other places of the world. Ever since the infamous tea party in Boston Harbor, we've found ingenious ways to store and serve the hot beverage, most of which are highly collectible.

Since tea was once a precious commmodity, it was originally stored in custom made boxes or containers called caddies. They appeared as fine furniture in England and are distinguished by a compartmentalized interior for different blends. These boxes are still found in antique shoops and can sell from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars each. In the 18th century, other types of boxes were made; some silver (for the wealthy) and others from tin or tole (for the middle class). Ceramic ones were also made both in pottery and porcelain.

The favorite collectible is not the caddie, however, but the teapot. The first known pots were made in China in the 16th century. Although not "discovered" in England until around 1658, tea drinking became the rage in a few short years, surpassing coffee by 1800. The first English teapots were imported from China and were part of the craze for Chinese Export Porcelain.

The problem with tea making was the necessity of having a vessel that could withstand the daily rigors of boiling water. Porcelain production was still very limited until the English makers found the right combination of clay and stone. The Americans, still at a loss for making fine porcelain, either had to import their teapots from the Continent or the Orient, or use other materials. We used pottery.

Rockingham became the name for pottery teapots and vessels wth a shiny brown glaze. "Rebecca at the Well" may be the best known example. Most were made in Bennington, Vermont. The Victorian period brought high tea and with it the necessity for all kinds of serving pieces and utensils. The pots were now ornate and fancy, made of either silver or the available silverplate. Toward the end of the 1890's we saw porcelain pots regain the lead, particularly from Limoges, Japan and even America.

Obviously, there are not cut glass teapots (Corning had not yet discovered Pyrex). We do see a huge trend in ceramic pots, mainly due to Hall Company of Liverpool, Ohio. Started in 1904 with a production line of toilet seats, the Hall Company became the largest producer of teapots in the world. The 1920's and 30's saw gold decoration, novelty and advertising lines, and many "figurals." Some of these can be very expensive, even though not extremely old (A Blue Blossom with airflow lists for $1000). They became the forerunners of the figural cookie jar, which seems a welcome companion to afternoon or after dinner "tea."

The mid to late 20th century has seen an explosion in the style and design of teapots, even though many of them never see a drop of boiling water. Add to this an unbelievable selection of cups and saucers, tea strainers and spoons of every description, tea "balls" and master servers, creamers and sugars, trays, etc., and you've got a collection in the making.

Perhaps not as dramatic as collecting coffee mills or grinding machines, but just like the drink itself, a bit more refined and elegant (my apologies to the coffee lovers of the world). So, whether it be a Wedgwood Jasperware 19th century pot with classical scenes (worth $400), or a Hall Red Poppy ceramic teapot (worth $40), you can enjoy a collectible that not only looks good but serves a very hospitable purpose. Tea anyone?