It’s a lovely happenstance when
beauty and functionality combine to form a handsome yet useful tool. Such is
the case of the silver tea strainer.
The origins of the tea strainer can
be traced to the 16th century, when tea was introduced to Europe from China.
Europeans replicated the Chinese method of dropping tea leaves into a pot and
then pouring off the resulting brew, taking care to avoid the transfer of spent
leaves to the cup. To improve the efficiency, perforated strainer spoons that
appeared in the 17th century not only skimmed debris from the tea, but featured
a pointed end for clearing teapot spouts as well.
By the late-18th century, it
occurred to tea enthusiasts that this very useful tea ware could be fashioned
in lustrous sterling to perfectly complement their silver tea services.
Imitating in miniature the design of larger wine and punch strainers, tea
strainers were fashioned with one or two handles that fit over a teacup to trap
leaves as the tea was poured. Later, holders were introduced to catch drippings
and to contain the strainers when not in use.
By the turn of the 20th century,
silver tea strainers were duplicating the intricate and exquisite 18th-century
styles and were being collected on a grand scale. When tea dealer Thomas
Sullivan introduced tea samples in tiny silk bags, the tea bag was born,
resulting in a sudden drop in the mass production of silver tea strainers. And,
as all collectors know, the value and desirability of these beautiful tea tools
rose as their availability declined.
Many fine examples of antique
silver tea strainers, as well as stunning reproductions, grace well-appointed
tea tables today. What began humbly as an efficient tool has become a highly
collected and most desirable addition to proper tea services.