It was a common occurrence in the Colonial era to receive an invitation to “share a dish of tea.” In 18th century Boston or Bath, a dish of tea referred to a teacup or tea bowl, containing black or green tea, placed on a saucer.
The terminology for tea equipage, including teacups, was evolving as Western tea drinkers refined their rituals. Porcelain makers, silversmiths, and furniture makers raced to invent new and more refined tea things (a Jane Austen term) that made their way onto an increasingly crowded tea table.
Tea wares first arrived along with chests of Chinese tea imported by the East India Company. A typical shipment of Chinese teaware in the early 1700s would have included crate upon crate of teacups – now known as tea bowls – without handles. These cups were easily nested inside straw-filled wooden boxes.
Cups with handles would have taken up more room and increased the likelihood of breakage.
These Chinese teacups bound for Holland sank to the bottom of the ocean off the Mekong Delta in 1725. They had no handles.
I often receive queries about how common the habit of pouring hot tea into a saucer and then sipping from the saucer truly was.
An 1846 account of early tea drinking habits in the West included this theory:
The saucer seems to have perplexed our ancestors at the time of its first introduction; its first use was believed to be merely to cool the tea, and then it was unfashionable to drink from the cup; at a later time, the use of the saucer was understood to be confined to saving slops [leftover tea from the cup], and thence forward the cup alone was to have the honour of being raised to the lips.
The Old Maid 1771
Courtesy of The Library of Congress
The tea drinker who drinks from her saucer in this engraving is undoubtedly not on her best behavior as she commits a double tea faux pas by drinking from her saucer while her cat sips cream from a dish atop her tea table. The weight of her pampered pet would cause the table to tip if not for her placing a hand on the table to keep it in balance.
While accounts of this not-so-polite habit appear off and on over the 18th and 19th centuries, I should note that this was probably not the standard model of drinking tea.
On his trips through the American colonies, Swedish traveler Peter Kalm noted that “when the English-born women drank tea, they never poured it out of the cup into the saucer to cool it, but drank it as hot as it came from the teapot.”
This article first appeared in TeaTime magazine.
Bruce Richardson is the co-author of A Social History of Tea