The art of drinking tea: A brief history of tea sets

The earliest recorded use of tea sets dates back to the Han Dynasty in China (206-220 B.C.), where tea wasn’t served in teapots, but in multi-functional bowls, used for a variety of cooking needs. In this period, tea was used as a medicine, and not for pleasure on a daily basis.

It is believed that the teapot appeared during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.). Fragments of a Yixing teapot have been discovered at an archaeological site. These teapots, called Zi Sha Hu in China, or Purple Sand Teapots in the United States, are probably the most famous teapots that have ever existed. They are named after a small city in the Jiangsu Provence and their uncommon coloration comes from a specific compound of iron.

Porcelain tea service decorated in overglaze enamels. Yongzheng period (1723-35)

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In the Western tradition, a tea set or a tea service represents a set of dishes used at formal tea parties or at afternoon tea. A typical set could include up to 25 pieces. It is believed that the first European to drink tea with the Chinese was the Portuguese missionary Father Jasper da Cruz. He documented his first encounter with tea in 1560. Some of the finest ships sailing to China in the 16th century were Portuguese and the first tea sets were introduced to Europe via Portuguese trade routes.

Service-solitaire with the arms of Princes Kurakins. 1826-1831. Porcelain, polychrome overglaze painting, gilding Photo credit

Tea service with surtout, Residenz, Munich, Bavaria, Germany. Tea service: Porcelain, painted by Johann Gregorious Hörodt (att.), Meissen, ca.1723/24 Surtout: gilt silver, by Johann Engelbrecht, Augsburg, ca.1729/33

At the, time tea was expensive so only the wealthy could afford to drink it. The first European tea sets consisted of a teapot and tiny cups. It is believed that the Dutch were the first to put milk in their tea and the first to serve tea in taverns and restaurants.

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As the trading relationships improved, tea became widely available across Europe. In 1680, the Marquise de Sévigné proposed the addition of a creamer to the tea set. Shortly after, sugar baskets were also added. By the mid-18th century, the tea set as we know it today could be found on the tables of Europe and America.

Meissner Porzelan (1810-1820) in the Residenzschloss Ludwigsburg. Originally 11-part, parts were gradually stolen and is today firmly fixed for protection against occasional thieves. Photo credit


Vintage tea service. Vienna Porcelain Manufactory, 1822, Vienna, Austria. Photo credit

The earliest known silver teapot was made in 1627. Silver cups and saucers were made as early as 1648, and because of Chinese influence they had no handles. During the reign of George II in the 18th century, larger-size teapots appeared in England.

In the 1600s, a Dutchman called Peter Stuyvesant introduced tea to the colonists of New Amsterdam (New York). There wasn’t a large number of skilled artisans in the New World, so the pottery made in America, in terms of quality, was nowhere near to European or Chinese standards. Fine tea sets and the tea itself had to be imported, making them expensive. The problem of tea importation escalated with the famous Boston Tea Party affair of 1773.

English tea set, 1759-1769 Photo credit

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A Spanish silver tea set Photo credit

The first modern set made of six pieces appeared during Queen Victoria’s reign, although complete silver sets with sugar bowls and creamers had been introduced earlier. The Queen’s tea set included teapot, creamer, sugar bowl, tea kettle, waste bowl and a coffee pot. The extension of the tea service coincided with the fashion of taking afternoon tea.