The History of the Teapot
Posted by Dani Noto on
I’m a huge fan of my large handmade mugs. My husband will roll his eyes if you ask him how many we have in our collection at home, but there’s definitely a time and place for a lovely teapot or two or three. Oh heck, who’s counting.
As I was looking at the teapots in my shop, I started wondering about the origins of the teapot. You history majors may already know all about this, but for those of us who don’t, I did some research on teapots and decided to share what I learned.
China was the pioneer in the tea industry, so it’s no surprise that we can trace the origin of teapots back to them.
Before there were teapots, tea came in bricks, and a chunk was cut off, broken up, and boiled in water. Tea was boiled in cauldrons and then sipped from a wide bowl. With the popularity of loose leaf tea came the need to invent something that would hold hot or boiling water while the tea leaves were steeping.
It was towards the end of the Sung dynasty (1271-1368) that the first formal teapot was recorded. These were Yixing teapots that originated from a province called Jiangsu in China. These were red or purple-colored 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 tea. 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 since China’s porcelain was more durable than what was being made in Europe. The Chinese teapots could also withstand seawater damage, so the East India Company placed the pots in the cargo areas of their ships. They then put the tea being shipped on top to stay dry.
However, in Germany, 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. These first teapots were decorated with Rococo and elaborate baroque designs.
Around the mid-1800s, William Cookworthy, an English pharmacist, discovered a way to produce hard-paste porcelain similar to the Chinese. He set up a factory in the town of Plymouth, UK. At first, of course, the designs of the European pots were influenced by those from China.
Europe thus evolved the Chinese teapot into the modern version we know and recognize today. The English also helped establish traditional and afternoon teas, highlighting tea being served from beautiful teapots and in beautiful china teacups.
The basic structure of the teapot hasn’t changed in the last 300 years, but its shapes, sizes, and colors have. The modern, bright colors and beautiful designs make teapots a joy to behold. Most teapots now have basket strainers/filters in them to make brewing loose leaf tea easy too.
Cast iron teapots are now all the rage. They come in beautiful colors and designs like their ceramic counterparts.
The benefit of cast iron is that it holds the heat much longer than ceramic, so your tea will stay warm longer.
Just a note to those who think, “oh, cast iron, it can go on the stove like cookware,” that’s not the case. You would use the cast iron pot just like you would a ceramic pot. Pre-warm your teapot by putting hot water — from your tap is fine — into it before actually brewing your tea. While your pot is warming, heat your tea water either on the stove or in your electric kettle — I do not recommend microwaved water.
When your water is at the correct brewing temperature — and you’re ready to make your pot of tea — first discard the warming water in the pot. Then pour the freshly boiled water into the cast iron pot and brew your tea like usual.
If you already have a pot or two, but they’ve been pushed to the back of the cupboard, I encourage you to pull them out, dust them off, and treat yourself and maybe a friend or two to a relaxing cup of tea.
And, if you’ve never used a teapot, I encourage you to give it a try. It’s not hard, and the experience really is worth the few extra minutes it may take to brew your cup of tea.