Who invented the teacup?

A little history of the teacup

I have a 1950s tea set that belonged to my grandma. The small tea cups are magical, small, thin and delicate, with the matching saucers. The milk jug is just as fragile and of a size that can hold four neat squirts of milk, no more, no less. The whole is set with flowers and is pretty and suitable for a tea party. Of course, I don't drink my tea from the tiny teacups, precisely for the reason that they are so tiny. I drink my tea from huge things that seemed beautiful and petite when I bought them, but which, in addition to my grandma's service, look bulky and - frankly - greedy.

Most things, including ourselves, have become oversized over time. Have you seen the size of the beverage cups in the cinema? You could bathe a baby in it. And Starbucks alone did with coffee what McDonald’s did with Cola - namely, made us feel that half a liter is perfectly normal, if not necessary. (Did you know the Venti mug at Starbucks holds over a pint of liquid? And that the Trenta mug, introduced four years ago, was made for a little less than a liter of your favorite iced tea at Starbucks?) Most of us, teacups or coffee mugs would not deserve a second look if they hold less than 300 ml. Tea is affordable and we drink a lot of it, so why can't we drink it in reasonably sized cups?

When you're sipping your morning drink from your carefully selected cup, it probably doesn't occur to you to think about where it's coming from. When you think of tea in days gone by, the image that probably comes to mind is that of a very English gentleman or lady drinking from fine china, gracefully grasping the handle, the little finger stretched out. From the moment tea became the drink of everyday life, teacups became too. But there is a story behind the humble teacup and how it became the vessel we are familiar with these days. The cup didn't just get bigger to accommodate European additions like milk, at some point it also got a handle.

From the moment Portuguese traders brought the first tea to England from China, it was the Fashionable drink consumed only by those who could afford it. Tea drinkers sipped their precious infusion from small Chinese tea bowls that were imported along with the tea leaves. Tea was so expensive that it was drunk in very small quantities from very small bowls. Both tea and Chinese porcelain caused a sensation in Europe, the former for its taste and the latter for its aesthetics and brilliance. Porcelain became enormously valuable, and Europeans were eager to get a piece of the cake - and also to make their own vessels from which to drink tea. Importing the tea was expensive enough, so one can imagine what a financial cut the import of the porcelain meant.

Tea bowls were soon being made in Europe, but with one crucial problem: In contrast to the harder Chinese porcelain, the porcelain from Europe did not withstand the boiling water and cracked when the water was poured onto the tea leaves. A magical ingredient was missing that was keeping the Europeans from a porcelain boom. Unsurprisingly, it was a German, namely the alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger, who solved the problem in 1709 under immense pressure from the king. As with any good story, there was a little betrayal and the sale of a secret involved, but the most important thing was that the first porcelain was made in Europe from 1710 - more precisely in Meissen, where the royal porcelain factory was founded.

However, the tea bowls soon lost popularity with European tea drinkers who added sugar to their tea and needed very hot water to dissolve it. Very hot water meant very hot tea, and very hot tea meant very hot hands clasped around the tea bowls. Sturdy china that didn't crack paved the way for the British to unleash the full extent of their craze for tea. From the 1750s onwards, England became the center for the production of porcelain and ceramics. It was the Briton Robert Adams, who is considered to be the designer of the first teacup with a handle. And when he had shot this bow, it could no longer be held. Shortly thereafter, the complete British tea set was born, with saucers, a sugar bowl, tongs for lemons, a milk can, teaspoons and every other accessory that a decent tea drinker can only dream of. By the 19th century, tea bowls were out of fashion, and tea cups - with all their fittings - were really and truly on trend. Like the tea that made it necessary, the tea set was a reflection of the social class of a household, for the higher the class to which it belonged, the finer the china.

At some point, probably around the time when England overturned the Chinese tea monopoly and built an empire on its tea plantations in India, tea was no longer so extremely expensive and no longer had to be drunk out of a thimble. Cheaper tea meant that people could drink it in larger quantities than before. In addition, the Europeans developed the strange habit of pouring milk into their tea, which is why cups had to hold them too. And just like our waists, the teacups grew. And grew. And grew.

So we sit here today and drink our tea as if it were water from our huge cups with slogans like “Best mom in the world” printed on them and which are about 250 ml away from the small bowls that make up the British upper class Sipped her tea sparingly 400 years ago.