As is often the case with antiquities, the objects themselves tell a story of the past and reflect their influence on the present. The teapot is one such storyteller.
Centuries before teapots were in use, people were drinking tea, but differently. In third-century China, the earliest method did not involve steeping the tea leaves, but rather, roasting them, forming them into a paste, then molding the paste into a cake which was boiled into a finished product that resembled soup. With that being the case, there didn’t seem to be a need for a teapot.
The process of preparing tea evolved into pounding tea leaves into a powder, placing the powder into a cup and pouring boiling water over it. The tradition of the tea service was an outgrowth of this change.
Arguably the first teapot was created in the Jiangsu province of China in 1500. Early teapots from this region were “Yixing” teapots. In Chinese, this translates to “purple sand pot,” a reference to the distinctive purple sand clay that was plentiful in that area and used in earthenware vessels. It wasn’t surprising that the earliest recorded teapots would come from this part of the world, as the Jiangsu province was prolific in the production of porcelain vessels in the 16th century and into the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
The evolution of tea preparation led to a substantially successful period for makers of Yixing teapots. The mineral composition of the “zisha” (purple sand) clay of the region was considered the finest of all types for use in tea-brewing vessels. Zisha clay is very porous and allows for significant absorption and retention of the tea’s flavor.
Tea Legend: Because of the porous nature of the clay used to make Yixing teapots, it is said that after preparing tea in the same pot several times, one can simply add water to boil in the pot without tea leaves, as the flavor retained by the pot during past brewings will render a quality cup of tea.
As awareness of the Yixing pot spread throughout Asia, there was an increased demand for not only the pots, but also knowledge of how the earthen pots were made. This awareness led to new influences being incorporated into the manufacturing process, resulting in a more elegant design. It also marked the period in history when Europe became familiar with Chinese porcelain, including teapots.
In the 17th century, the East India Company brought its profitable imports to Europe. However, European manufactories were not familiar with the techniques that produced zisha pots. The oft-accepted process of making porcelain in Europe involved mixing glass-like materials with clay. Unfortunately, “soft-paste” porcelain teapots were known to crack and explode when boiling water was poured into them.
Things changed dramatically in 1705 when an “imprisoned” young alchemist and an experienced scientist were brought together with the purpose of developing a formula and technique for creating “hard paste” porcelain. This opened the door to European production of a much-sought-after commodity. At the time, 18-year-old Johann Friedrich Bottger was under house arrest, not for what he had done as an alchemist, but for what he might be up to regarding the development of gold. At the same time, Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus, a scientist, was two decades into an effort to learn how porcelain was made. At Tschirnhaus’ suggestion, Bottger was escorted by a guard to the scientist’s lab, where the two began collaborating on a porcelain project. They worked together until 1708, when Tschirnhaus died from dysentery. That same year, production of European porcelain, using the formula the two had developed, began in Meissen, Germany. The public’s first opportunity to purchase pieces took place at the Leipzig Easter Fair in 1710.
In short order, regions across Europe began delving into the production of teapots as well as other porcelain objects, and the industry began to flourish. In part, the popularity of the quality European porcelain grew through its availability, not only in quantity but also in affordability. Tea and teapots may not have bridged the gap between the upper and middle socio-economic classes within Europe, but it did allow for people of varying backgrounds to enjoy one common pleasure: tea served from a teapot.
With the porcelain formula now widely known, production moved at a steady clip, and the public was embracing tea and teapots with unmatched fervor. Creativity in design and new efficiencies in production were seen. This is visible in the forms of the teapots, the glazes, and novel designs, including Swinton Pottery’s iconic Brown Betty teapot. Like the famous Yixing teapots, the Brown Betty came from red clay, which also provides for substantial retention of heat. The Brown Betty was simple in design but a model of efficiency in producing a good cup of tea.
“Have tea and teapot, will travel,” may not have been the motto of the British colonists heading to what would eventually become America to start a new life, but the taste for tea and appreciation for teapots was not something they would leave behind. Of course, colonists would soon discover what Native Americans had known for centuries, that clay (an essential resource in porcelain and pottery-making) was both abundant and varied in composition within the “New World.” Additionally, North America had the natural resources for fuel, in the form of wood from its vast forests. By 1850, in New England alone, there were more than 500 potters actively working.
It wasn’t just in the East that American pottery production was booming. As people began to travel west and settle, potteries were established and teapots continued to be created. Again, the evolution of brewing and serving tea led to changes in teapot production. The development of the teabag in the first quarter of the 20th century simplified tea-brewing, as it eliminated the need for some accessories, such as strainers.
As time has gone on, teapots have evolved from functional wares to collectibles. One of the most impressive collections of teapots may be viewed in a small community in western Tennessee. The collection, amassed by Trenton’s native son, the late Dr. Frederick Freed, showcases porcelain veilleuses-théières, meaning night- or side-light teapots. This style of the teapot is unique in that the warming stand upon which the teapot sits is not the sleek and short style commonly seen, but instead, one that can measure more twice the height of the teapot, which on average would hold two to three cups of a beverage. The veilleuse came about as a means of providing warm beverages during the night, for patients and youngsters. A dish of oil was placed in the stand, and when lit, it would serve as a warming device for the porcelain pot.
The Trenton teapot collection includes 650 examples, all made between 1750 and 1860 and acquired by Dr. Freed during his travels to France and Germany. The collection is valued at $8 million.
Beginning in 1955 and over the course of several years, Dr. Freed donated his collection of teapots to the City of Trenton. All these years later Dr. Freed’s gift of conservatorship of his collection continues to draw visitors and tourism dollars to the Tennessee community. An estimated 3,000 people are said travel to Trenton each year just to view the rare pots.
Trenton Teapot Collection: The Trenton Teapot Collection is located at Trenton City Hall in Trenton, Tennessee. The museum is open weekly from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., and admission is free. The community of Trenton will hold its 38th Annual Trenton Teapot Festival in April of 2018.
Whether they are ancient Chinese Yixing vessels, early Meissen designs, or decorative mid-20th-century productions, teapots perpetuate the fascinating story of how an Eastern invention became a staple of Western life.