First time on the blog or new to the Time Pieces History Project? Find out what it’s all about here, and then come back to this page for today’s item – the teapot.
The Teapot – Introduction to Item 3
This particular teapot was given to me by my parents when I decided to be a self-employed copywriter, with the idea that I could have it in my office alongside a kettle, and I wouldn’t have to go downstairs for a tea break. I still take breaks, so that probably backfired a bit!
However, I chose it more for what it represents, which is the very English habit of drinking copious amounts of tea, which I’ve done all my life, and with many people who’ve been important in my life.
My paternal grandmother used to make me sweet, milky tea when I was very young, and that was exactly what my mother gave me for shock when I sliced open a finger earlier this year. When my husband and I first started going out, most of our time was spent drinking tea in his living room, with our record being 13 cups of tea in one day.
I start every day with two, if not three, cups of tea. I do venture into green or lemon tea now and again, but I usually stick to plain breakfast tea, probably milkier than it should be. As my sense of taste is impaired, I don’t really notice the subtleties in many delicately-fragranced brews, which is a bit of a disappointment, but nothing a good cup of tea won’t solve.
The History of Tea
Of course, like so many things appropriated by the English, tea is about as multicultural as you can get. It’s thought that it originated in China, in the Yunnan region, where it had medicinal purposes, and it’s recorded in a text from the 3rd century AD.
Tea travelled round the world, being introduced to sailors, merchants and priests, gaining popularity in Britain only in the 17th century, when we promptly decided we’d start a rival tea production company in India – The English East India Company.
There are a number of Chinese origin myths around tea, but my favourite is a rather grisly one: the founder of Chan Buddhism, a man called Bodhidharma, fell asleep after spending nine years meditating in front of a wall. Appalled at his weakness, he cut off his eyelids, which fell to earth and grew into tea bushes. A rather extreme response, but I’m grateful to him anyway.
Whatever the real story, from its beginnings in China tea then went to Japan, where it became a key part of the culture and led to the Tea Ceremony, which is still performed today. Portuguese sailors trading in the East were the first Europeans to taste tea in the late 16th century, but it was the Dutch, who took over their trading routes, who introduced it to the West. At this time, it was only the wealthy who could afford to pay the high price for tea leaves.
Later, tearooms sprang up in Glasgow, London and then further afield, where respectable ladies could go and socialise with friends, rather than having to stay in the drawing room. By this time, tea was considerably cheaper and no longer subjected to the 118% tax previously imposed.
The History of the Teapot
When we lived in York in the late 1980s, my dad used to take me to Betty’s Tearoom, or Taylor’s on Stonegate. I remember squeezing past people on the narrow staircase and being seated at a table and surrounded by novelty teapots. As it turns out, though, the teapot has a history as interesting and varied as tea.
We all know that a teapot has a spout and holds either teabags, or more traditionally, tea leaves, where a strainer will come in handy. My grandparents had a strainer, but I think there was always at least one rogue leaf in my brew.
Teapots can be made from a variety of materials, such as ceramic, trendy glass or metal, beloved of chip shops and cafes, and which are almost always guaranteed to leak, if you don’t burn yourself on the side.
Teapots are recorded as early as 1500BC, during the Sung dynasty period in China. Known as Yixing teapots, they were made from purple or red earthenware, and came from the Jiangsu province. Each teapot was used for a different type of tea, and was for one person only.
Japanese teapots, much like their fans, were decorated with all kinds of patterns, and a handle at the top or at the rear. In India, tea-drinking only gained popularity in the 20th century, and glass or bone china pots are only used for special occasions.
It’s worth noting that early teapots were fragile and breakable, so the East India Company commissioned artists in China to design a branded ‘teapot’ in the more robust local porcelain.
Former Prime Minister Charles Grey will make an appearance elsewhere in this project, but I feel he deserves a nod for his wonderful tea, which is now manufactured by Twining’s Tea. The bergamot-infused tea was allegedly made especially to offset the natural lime in the water local to his Northumberland home.
The company started producing a black tea named after his wife, Lady Grey, which adds lemon and orange peel to the original recipe. It’s a lighter flavour, and very refreshing. Convention says you should drink either of the ‘Grey’ teas with a slice of lemon, but I always spoil it with milk.
My Nana is a fan of luxurious rituals, as you’ll see later on. She inspired my (unfortunate) love of afternoon tea, which luckily, I don’t indulge in very often. Modern variations now sometimes include bubbles, and you can pay a lot of money for an afternoon tea in somewhere like Fortnum and Mason.
While it seems like something the greedy Tudors would have indulged in, afternoon tea is actually a fairly recent invention, introduced to England in 1840 by the 7th Duchess of Bedford, who found herself hungry at inconvenient times.
The large gap between lunch and her 8pm dinner meant she got hungry at 4pm. She started taking tea, bread and butter and cake regularly in the afternoon, and soon began inviting friends to join her. Within 40 years, afternoon tea was a formal occasion for high society women, who dressed up for the occasion.
There is an important distinction between afternoon tea, which features delicate finger sandwiches, cakes, pastries and the later addition of fruit scones, and high tea, which includes pies and cold meats. It’s further complicated by regional variations and names, as ‘tea’ in the north east of England means ‘dinner’, and ‘dinner’ refers to ‘lunch’.
PG Tips Chimps
I couldn’t write about tea without mentioning the Tipps Family, who provided endless entertainment in less-enlightened times. These anthropomorphic chimps graced our screens from 1956 to 2002, performing an extended version of the chimps’ tea party seen at zoos across the country to advertise PG Tips tea, having been bussed in from Twycross Zoo. Each ad featured a different domestic scene, but it always ended with a prominently-placed teapot and the family enjoying a relaxing bew
Looking at it now, there’s something rather grim about the female chimp in her pearls and wig and the ‘dad’ with his newspaper, but at the time it was hilarious, and in the early days the chimps were voiced by celebrities such as Peter Sellers and Bob Monkhouse. And the ads certainly brought success for PG, whose teabags aren’t that great.