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Tea democratised (part one)
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In about 1805 Josiah Spode perfected a revolutionary type of porcelain containing animal bone ash. Strong, translucent, pure white and cheap to produce, bone china became the material of choice for teapots and related tea wares. Its affordability meant that even the rising middle classes could now afford a ‘proper’ tea service, while the rich and fashion-conscious could indulge in a new set every few years.

Victorian decorative arts are often described as electric, displaying an astonishing number – sometimes even a mixture – of styles, such as neoclassical, gothic, rococo and baroque. Teapots were no exception and came in array of shapes and colours, decorated with either patterns or sculptural motifs, or both. Some were so ‘over-embellished’ that one wonders how they were actually used. But in this new age of consumerism, choice – whether garish or tasteful – was the order of the day.


Tea democratised (part one)

By the end of the nineteenth century colour advertising was fairly common, as this 1899 Twinings advert beautifully demonstrates.



Further technical innovations helped bring about significant changes to tea wares. Refinements in transfer printing (first developed in the 1750s) meant that images could now be applied to a curved surface, such as that of a teapot, as part of the mass-production process. So, while at the pot end of the market, teapots and related items may still have been hand painted, transfer printed wares offered an affordable alternative for the middle classes. Similarly, the technique of electroplating, perfected by Elkington & Co. in the mid-nineteenth century, meant that teapots that looked like solid silver – but were in fact plated – could be bought for about a third of the cost of silver ones. This was an ideal choice for an ‘aspiring’ household keen to make an impression.

While tea wares became cheaper thanks to advances in technology and the growth of mass-production, tea itself became more affordable during the course of the nineteenth century, thanks mainly to the establishment of British-run tea plantations in India.


Tea democratised (part one)

As this Nectar Tea postcard shows, elephants were used in tea plantations. Duties ranged from clearing of land for cultivation to carrying loads of tea.



The British had relied on the Chinese for tea, but one significant event was to highlight the fragile, and also morally corrupt, nature of the tea trade. This was the Opium War of 1839-42. Its roots go back to at least 1758, when Parliament gave the East India Company the monopoly of the opium production in India. For the next hundred years or so, the British grew vast amounts of opium, mainly in Bengal, and illegally exported it to China. While this important source of revenue helped fund Britain’s tea-drinking habit, opium addiction spread across China like wildfire. By the 1830s the country had about three million opium addicts. The Chinese Government decided that drastic measures were needed to stop this ‘epidemic’, so it burned a year’s supply of opium (about 20 000 chests) on 3 June 1839. Horrified, the British declared war and the Chinese reacted by placing an embargo on tea exports. Although the Opium War ended with the defeat of the Chinese in 1842, by then it had become clear that Britain needed to grow its own tea to free itself from its dependence on China.


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