Tea Cups Steeped In Rich History

- Aug 09, 2018-

Tea cups steeped in rich history



Glasses tea cup

Sydney Smith, an 18th century English preacher, wrote “Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.”

That sentiment has been shared by tea lovers the world over, but what would tea be without a vessel to drink it in?

Whether crafted from rudimentary clay or fashioned in delicate porcelain and bone china, tea cups have been collected for as long as people have enjoyed tea.

Around the turn of the 20th century, it was fashionable to serve tea from a matching set of English china that included a tea pot, sugar and creamer, cups, saucers and luncheon plates. These sets were cherished by their owners and passed down from mothers, grandmothers and aunts to their daughters and nieces. After World War I, it became popular to collect just the cups. Manufacturers capitalized on the trend and began to create elegant tea-cup and saucer sets for special occasions, souvenirs and gift giving.

Donna Santiago of Lake Placid has been selectively collecting tea cups since she inherited two miniature Bavarian examples from her grandmother when she was only 13 years old. Over the past four decades, her collection has grown to include beautifully decorated cups and saucers from England, France, Bavaria, Czechoslovakia, China and Japan.

When asked what she finds most appealing about her porcelain treasures, she said “I guess it’s the gold. Every tea cup I have is trimmed or decorated in gold.” 

Indeed, all of the examples in her collection are embellished with the precious metal. On some of the older tea cups, the once brilliant trim is barely visible, as it has been worn away by time and use. However, the majority of the cups and saucers in her collection are in pristine condition as they were made during the mid-20th century for those who were passionate about the collecting craze.


The history of tea goes back more than 5,000 years to an ancient Chinese legend. The emperor Shen-Nong was boiling water near a tea tree when some of the leaves fell into the pot, making a mildly flavored brew. The emperor found it so pleasant that he ordered tea leaves placed in his drinking water thereafter. The practice soon spread, and by 805 A.D., the Japanese were also drinking tea. It was the East India Company that introduced the exotic drink to Europe, and by the 1660s, tea drinking was fashionable in France and Great Britain.

Tea first came to America with the early colonists and was greatly enjoyed, but in 1773, when high tea taxes imposed by parliament became oppressive, a band of rebels boarded the British East India Company ships anchored in Boston Harbor and dumped the tea cargo overboard. Patriots turned to drinking coffee until after the American Revolution when tea once again made its appearance.


The evolution of the tea cup began in China during the eighth century, when the brew was served in small porcelain or stoneware bowls. Since the Chinese drank tea lukewarm, there was no problem handling the bowl.

During the 17th century, tea bowls were being exported into Europe, and by the 18th century, the English were producing tea bowls with oriental motifs. However, since the English liked their tea piping hot, handling the bowl was a problem. The solution came in the form of a matching shallow dish into which the tea was poured and then sipped from. It wasn’t until about 1810 that a handle was applied to the tea bowl and the form evolved into the cup and saucer as we know it today.


Tea-cup collectors steeped in the hobby are familiar with the different shapes and styles available. Made from delicate semi-translucent porcelain or durable bone china and decorated in a myriad of themes, there is a wide variety from which to choose. Basically there are two base designs, pedestal and flat bottom.

When it comes to the bowl, there are 15 shapes, ranging from scalloped, fluted and ribbed to basic straight or rounded sides. Furthermore, tea-cup handles are just as distinctive, with names that describe their form, such as angular, D-shaped, serpentine, ring and curled. Decorative designs range from hand-painted motifs like fruit and flowers to decals of animals, silhouettes or Victorian couples. Some tea cups even have the decoration on both the inside and outside of the cup.

The best teacup collections contain sentimental pieces that were inherited or acquired as special gifts. Donna’s favorite pieces are the two miniature Bavarian cups that once belonged to her grandmother, who was also a collector. Over the years, friends and loved ones have also added to her collection, but she only buys when she finds a bargain at antique shops or auctions. She has never paid more than $22 for a matching three-piece set.

Her best deal was a $15 auction buy; a Japanese luncheon tea set for six fashioned of white-glazed porcelain heavily hand-decorated with gold. It features an oriental village scene against the backdrop of Mount Fuji, but the most fascinating thing about the set is the lithophane porcelain bottom of each delicate cup. When held to the light, a three-dimensional image of a geisha girl appears.

Julie Robinson Robards is an antiques journalist and dealer living in Upper Jay. She is the author of two published books on celluloid, an advisor to several antique price guides and a writer for AntiqueWeek Newspaper since 1995. She may be reached through her website