By Amy Cates
The teapot is a simple vessel—short and stout, with its handle and spout, as the childhood song indicates. A teapot doesn’t have to be beautiful, whimsical, or ornate to quietly steep tea while simultaneously holding the heat of the water. But variations in the teapot’s composition, shape, and design certainly add to its charm, giving it a side job as either a cherished family heirloom or a fanciful addition to a treasured collection.
The teapot’s roots date to the fourth century, when the ewer was used to hold and transport water. This decorative pitcher evolved to become a piece of art, showcasing a unique craftsmanship and growing in popularity as a commonly used container. The ewer may have influenced Chinese pottery, as local potters fashioned pitchers of stoneware while also introducing an improved method of steeping tea leaves. Form met function, as craftsmen from the Ming Dynasty improved upon the stoneware version of the teapot with the trademark blue and white porcelain variety during the 16th century. Ming porcelain often featured dragon and phoenix motifs, but it was the blue and white color scheme that set Chinese pottery apart.
As tea arrived in Europe in the 17th century, so did an early form of today’s teapot. Spouts and handles made these small vessels popular because they became more ergonomic. By the early 1700s, porcelain was being produced in Germany, and its widespread use throughout Europe sparked the production of other porcelain tea ware. But craftsmen learned quickly that porcelain was not durable enough to withstand the heat of boiling water. Around 1800, Josiah Spode altered the composition of porcelain by adding bone ash, which strengthened the material and helped prevent chipping.
Only a few decades earlier, silversmiths throughout Europe had begun crafting small and decorative teapots that quickly became popular throughout Scandinavia and England because of the durability of silver. An early example held by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is associated with the East India Company and inscribed 1670. The triangular-shaped teapot spun from the ewer and gave way to the Queen Anne and Georgian styles, which are still regarded as the traditional designs for silver teapots. These teapots—and their more affordable pewter counterparts—are thought to have evolved during the 18th century.
More commonplace in today’s kitchens, however, are ceramic teapots, like the handmade Brown Betty teapot, whose origin dates back to the 17th century and which remains a classic English piece. Made of English red clay and fired and glazed to create a unique finish, the Brown Betty is manufactured in Staffordshire, England, and is renowned for its ability to retain heat. Variations on the Brown Betty style can be found in glazed and unglazed ceramic and in stoneware, with stainless-steel strainer inserts.
While ceramic and china teapots remain staples at the tea table, teapots have also stayed in step with tea trends. Most notable is the unique charm of glass teapots, which provide a visual platform for the tea experience. Glass teapots allow easy visibility of color and volume, but their transparent makeup seems almost tailor-made for flowering or blooming teas. Water is boiled in a kettle and then poured into the glass teapot housing the hand-sewn bundle of tea, which blooms after being steeped for three to five minutes. Tea blossoms can be infused several times, and the bloom remains an aesthetic complement inside the glass teapot, transforming a would-be pitcher into an inimitable centerpiece.
The evolution of the teapot is surprisingly slight, as its role remains simple and low-tech. For hundreds of years, variations were borne out of personal taste, and even in modern times, the selection and use of a teapot are determined largely by preference. Composition, size, style, and materials are all considerations in choosing a teapot, whether it be used tirelessly or displayed as a treasured keepsake.