Teapots are quintessential for brewing your favorite cup of loose leaf tea! These beautiful wares which are also the perfect mantelpiece have been around for ages but what really is the history and origin of the teapot? Come along with us on a journey to trace the teapot through the ages, from China to Europe.
What are teapots?
Teapots are traditionally the vessels used to steep tea leaves or other herbal mixes in hot water. It is also a vessel to serve said liquid which is the result of the infusion. A teapot is characterized with a handle, to hold the vessel, a spout where the liquid is poured out from and a lid which is removed when water and tea leaves are added to the pot and put back on during the steeping process. Teapots can be made from various different materials such as clay, ceramic or cast iron and usually have beautiful designs and carvings on the sides.
Chinese origin and humble beginnings
The history of the teapot can be traced back to China and rightly so considering it was the pioneer in the tea industry and till date is the largest producer and exporter of tea.
Before the invention of teapots, tea came in bricks and a chunk was cut off, broken up and boiled in water. They were boiled in cauldrons and then the tea was sipped from a wide bowl. Following this, powdered tea became popular and this was mixed with hot water in a deep and wide bowl. This type of bowl helped to whip the powder to a froth with a whisk. When the powder settled, the tea was drunk out of the bowl.
Teapot-like vessels have been around in China for thousands of years, but they were used for wine and water. These vessels had a spout and handle and eventually were adopted for the steeping of tea. With the popularity of loose leaf tea came the need for an invention of a vessel that would hold hot or boiling water and tea leaves so that it could steep. Thus, it was towards the end of the Sung dynasty (1271-1368) that the necessity of a formal teapot was first felt to match with the refinement of the whole tea brewing process - recorded in some historical texts at around 1500 AD. These were Yixing teapots that originated from a province called Jiangsu in China. These were red or purple colour earthen pots that became popular even more during the Ming dynasty in the 17th century. Yixing teapots had a beautiful texture, and they seasoned after repeated use.
Yixing teapots are coveted to this day and remain China’s gold standard for brewing vessels. The city of Yixing, in Jiangsu Province, continues to produce this famous teapot.
While the general idea of the teapot did originate in China, we owe the modern design of the teapot to the Europeans. The East India Company introduced not only tea to England but also Chinese teapots to Europe. At the beginning of the 18th century the East India Company commissioned Chinese artists to create teapots to the company's design. China's porcelain was more durable and, as porcelain can withstand sea water damage, the East India Company placed the pots in the cargo areas of their ships with the tea being stored on top in the dry. However, it was in Germany that the first attempt to make earthen teapots similar to those from Asia was made. They tried to make soft paste porcelain, but they were fragile and often broke when hot tea was poured into them. Eventually, the breakthrough in making teapots was achieved in France where they also decorated these first teapots with Rococo and elaborate baroque designs. Around the mid-1800's, William Cookworthy discovered a way to produce porcelain similar to the Chinese and founded a works in the town of Plymouth, UK. At first, of course, the designs of the European pots were influenced by the Chinese designs.
Europe thus evolved the Chinese teapot into the modern version we know and recognize today.
Modern purpose and social significance
The structure of the teapot has not changed in the last 300 years even though shapes, sizes and colors have. Today teapots are an essential part of the tea brewing process and hold importance as one of the main tea serving vessels. In many traditions such as the British high tea and the Russian Samovars tea tradition, teapots hold central place and enjoy importance. (Click here to know more about tea traditions).
Traditional afternoon or evening tea consists of dainty sandwiches, cakes, pastries and scones served with clotted cream or jam and the star of the show is usually beautifully brewed Indian or Ceylon tea served from beautiful teapots. The décor is traditionally delicate China and this tradition has carried on over the centuries and the afternoon tea is a staple in many British diets. This tradition has now been adopted by many all over the world and the teapot is today an essential for tea time!
The bright colors and aesthetics designs make teapots pleasing to the eye. Cast iron teapots are now all the rage (Our cast iron teapot range) and thus, they are a quintessential part of your cupboard!