The History of Tea Sets

Origins of Tea

Throughout the centuries, the customs and traditions surrounding the consumption of tea have varied. With this variation, we can see the development of what we now know as the tea set. From the very origins of tea, which we can trace back to the Ancient Han Dynasty (206-220BC), the practice of drinking tea has come a long way. For the first millennia however, there was very little alteration to the earliest form of tea: hot water boiled with tea leaves, spices (such as ginger and orange) drunk from multifunctional bowls. It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644AD) that the concept of the tea set first appeared and during this time there were a great variety of tea sets developed, made from Oriental porcelains.

Introduction of The Tea Set To Europe

Tea gradually became more available in Europe after interactions between Chinese and Dutch traders. The Dutch traders were also credited with normalising the consumption of milk in tea (a drink they referred to as ‘Melkthee’).  During this initial introduction of tea to Europe, the East India Company did not include any of the Oriental porcelain sets in their shipments of tea from China. As tea grew more and more popular throughout Europe during the 1600s, however, they saw the benefit of introducing tea sets in their shipments. Their cargos now included bowls and pots as well as tea, and they developed a system in which matching tea sets would be ordered from Chinese and Japanese factories and then decorated with custom family crests or mottos upon their arrival to England. This method was ideal in theory; however the whole process, from placing an order to receiving the tea set featuring your family crest usually took 2 years, rendering less practical than originally thought. 

Tea Sets In The 18th Century

The 1700s saw tea become cheaper and more widely available. Consequently, many of the elements of a tea set were introduced at this time. Items such as sugar pots (originally known as sugar baskets) and milk jugs or creamers became more commonplace and the tea set began to develop as a product. At this time, the set traditionally included: a small round or pear shaped teapot, a lidded milk jug, a covered sugar bowl, a pair of scissor-shaped sugar tongs, a basin for slops, a dish from teaspoons, a kettle and burner and a lockable tea caddy. Some of these would be porcelain, some silver, and some wood. The lockable caddy would have been made of: shagreen, rare wood, ivory, tortoiseshell, mother of pearl, crystal, or silver. Throughout the century these sets grew in size, until they commonly consisted of 43 pieces (12 teacups, 12 saucers, 6 - or sometimes 12 - coffee cups, a teapot with a cover and stand, a sugar dish with a cover and stand, a slop basin with a stand, a tea canister with a cover, a milk pot with a cover and spoon tray).

At this point, tea sets were more commonly manufactured in Europe, resulting in the decline of the market of Oriental porcelain.

Tea was commonly enjoyed by people of all classes. However while people of a higher status could normally afford a grand tea set (or maybe multiple sets), poorer families were not so fortunate. To make up for this, many families would pool together their resources- travelling to other houses with their components of a tea set to coordinate with others to make a full set and enjoy a communal afternoon tea.

Victorian Tea Customs

It was during the Victorian era that the fashion for afternoon tea really took off. This was a far more extravagant affair than midday tea, including small cakes and sandwiches, intended to sustain the diners until their evening meal. Because of this popular tradition, tea sets became a household necessity. The custom during afternoon tea was for the hostess to sit near the table or stand beside it while pouring the tea. If there was a gentleman present, it would be his role to hand out the tea cups to the guests. If a man wasn’t present, the task would fall to the daughter of the household.

The tea sets at this time tended to vary greatly in size, from a simple 3 piece set (teapot, milk jug and sugar bowl) to larger sets, depending upon the occasion and the company. Sets of 9 pieces or more, including multiple cream and sugar bowls would be used for longer and grander tables. These sets would feature aesthetically as a centre piece as well as providing their practical function. They were also a good way of showcasing great craftsmanship, as each individual piece would be intricately decorated and then would also come together as part of the set to reveal a larger motif. The elements of the tea set had to be crafted to work on both levels, alone and as a group. Silver was a popular material with which to craft a tea set as it is ideal for engraving, and as previously mentioned, many families would want their family crest engraved upon their tea set, to make it individual and display their wealth and status.


Complete antique tea sets are consistently in high demand, even today, and their aesthetically pleasing style seems to have transcended the fashions and trends of the last century. This means they are still highly popular with antique collectors and tea enthusiasts alike, whether their intention is for ornamental use or to provide a wonderfully extravagant afternoon tea, reminiscent of Victorian grandeur.



This Article has been provided by AC Silver 


Image Credits:
Image 1: The Tea Ceremony, Wikipedia 
Image 2: LoveAntiques Stock Image from AC Silver
Image 3 (left): LoveAntiques Stock Image from AC Silver
Image 3 (right): LoveAntiques Stock Image from Windsor House Antiques