The Teapot – A ‘Potted’ History

Tea has been sipped, slurped and sunk from cups, mugs and beakers for as long as any of us can remember, but have you ever stopped to think about the vessel for brewing the tea: the humble teapot? Who was the first to come up with a design for a teapot, and when were they first used?

We all know what a teapot looks like, but who was the first to create and design them?

Most theories centre around the teapot having acquired its original design from the clay kettles and wine jugs found in China – when tea was first shipped to Europe in the 17th century – but there are those who also hold the belief that their design was inspired by coffee pots found in Islamic countries.

Either way, we can’t be completely sure of the origin of the teapot, but we do know that tea was a costly commodity back in those days, and so what teapots did exist, tended to be made of highly prized materials such as silver, and were not at all common.

The earliest teapots look tiny compared to modern westernized pots, but this is because they were designed for the single Chinese drinker and the tea was usually drunk directly from the spout.

The teapot as we know it today, however, has its design roots in Europe. These were heavy and cumbersome items at first, with short spouts that broke easily, so a new design was quickly sought at the beginning of the 18th century. The East India Company (a British joint-stock trading company who conducted their business mainly with the Indian subcontinent) arranged for artists from China to recreate teapots from their company’s designs, and as the porcelain from China was far stronger, long lasting and could survive sea water, the company arranged for the pots to sail as cargo on their ships that were being used to transport tea (the tea was up top, in the dry, and the pots were down in the hold).

After the Chinese and the East India Company, who were the next to design a teapot?

In 1708, a method of making porcelain was discovered in Dresden, Germany, and the Meissen factory set up a business shortly after, in 1710, making teapots inspired by Chinese designs.

William Cookworthy, an English Quaker minister, pharmacist and technological innovator in the 1800’s, found a way to make porcelain that was almost identical to the Chinese version, and in a coastal town in the UK, he founded a works. At his point in history, tea was not the most popular drink in the UK, instead it was ale, but as a result of poor harvests and tax cuts, tea was generally favored over ale and teapots needed to be made bigger to meet the demand.

When were Chinese porcelain pots no longer imported?

As a result of the industrial revolution, the making and selling of pottery became big business and in 1791, the East India Company finally halted its imports of porcelain from China.

When bone china was invented in the 19th century, it was found to be strong and durable, and it quickly became the material of favor for making teapots to quench the thirst of the world’s new tea drinkers.

How has the teapot changed over the years?

It can safely be said that the rudimentary design of the teapot has changed little in 300 years, and presumably based upon the premise that if it something isn’t broken, you don’t need to fix it.