by Amy Cates
Photography by Sarah Swihart
The teacup stands equally as a trademark of the make-believe tea parties of early childhood and the focal point of the most sophisticated formal high teas. Its distinctive shape, delicately curved handles, and companion saucer gives this utilitarian piece a personality unique to its owner. Whether it's a hand-painted keepsake from a friend, a wedding present passed down through generations, or even a chipped cup that has been restored again and again, teacups are belived collectibles, no matter how expansive the collection.
The evolution of the teacup began in China and spread through Europe in the 17th century as a handle-free vessel. Chinese teacups had no handles and were held by the thumb and forefinger at the lip and base of the cup. Europeans' intolerance of the hot temperature eventually led to the addition of the handle.
As the popularity of tea spread throughout Europe, craftsmen and hostesses alike struggled with ways to improve tea service. Although silver was a durable metal, it maintained heat almost too well. During the 1600s, a transition from fine silver cups to porcelain ones began.
But porcelain had its drawbacks as well. Mme de La Sablière, a French hostess of an influential literary salon during the 17th century, is often credited with being among the first to add milk to tea. The practice began by pouring milk into the cup before filling it with hot tea. While tempering the tea in this manner made handling more comfortable, Mme La Sablière was actually seeking to prevent cracking or breaking the porcelain.
Although fragile, porcelain teacups gained favor and were quickly subject to regular use. Their delicateness made them prone to chips and breaks, but rather than part with these treasured pieces, tea drinkers developed methods of mending teacups. Seams were either brushed with gold gilt or repaired with shellac, plaster, wax, or even egg whites. Prized collections often featured pieces with exposed repairs.
In the 19th century, teacups took on a second role—as collectibles. Cups and saucers found a home on display shelves, and friends took to painting white pieces, using them as blank canvases. The hand-painted teacups were passed along as gifts and keepsakes, shaping entire collections out of an eclectic mix of tea wares.
Teacups became pieces of history after World War II, as the "Made in Occupied Japan" stamp marked thousands of exported items and created much-sought-after collectibles. Though the Allied forces remained in Japan until 1951, the "occupied" mark was regulated only through 1947 and had disappeared entirely by 1955.
Helping write the history of teacup designs were names like Royal Doulton, Havilland, and Spode. Their designs furthered the teacup as an art form that represented a culture.
For centuries, the treasured teacup, whether chipped or carefully maintained and without blemish, has made countless journeys from the shelf to the table and back again. A vital part of cultural customs, it has maintained its place in high culture and deep-rooted tradition while seeming equally at home on a simple shelf or modest table.
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