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The popular modern conception of tea and tea parties in the early days of the United States involves Sons of Liberty masquerading as Native Americans throwing boxes of tea into the Boston Harbor. However, the beverage was more than a symbol of political oppression. Tea was in fact a major part of early American society, and the rituals surrounding its consumption helped to maintain social cohesion and form identity as the nascent culture struggled to find its identity. The teacup in the RISD Museum’s collection serves as an important element of the tea-drinking ritual of the time, and stands today as a symbol of the economic freedom and social climate of the post revolutionary era.
The teacup’s primary significance as an artifact lies in its site of manufacture. Like many other teacups of the time, it was made in China for export markets (1). The Chinese export porcelain trade in the United States boomed after the postwar opening of the borders to international trade, and Providence was an important site of exchange (2). The materials and decorative technique (porcelain with overglaze enamels) were considered hallmarks of the Chinese style. Although this technique was popular in China, and porcelain objects abounded within a local context, the Chinese intentionally created objects for Western markets that had markedly different characteristics from those created for domestic sale. The decorative motifs of the teacup are distinctively “Oriental”, but bear little semblance to the actual decorations favored by the Chinese (3). The porcelain manufacturers and decorators recontextualized their culture for the international markets, providing patterns Europeans and Americans would have associated with China, but that no member of the culture would have recognized as such.
The shape of the teacup represents a further departure from the actual Chinese ideal. Its shape was modified to suit the Western notions of “teacup”, and is far larger, wider, and deeper than the Chinese norm (4). This shape is also significant for its cultural associations within America. Even today, the shape of the vessel is associated with tea, and tea drinking by members of Anglo-American society. It is, after all, a “teacup”, intrinsically linked to the beverage it was designed to hold. An appropriate social actor would know better than to put coffee or hot chocolate inside, though it could easily serve as a container for either. Its culturally assigned purpose has endured for centuries due to its mental links with tea and tea-drinking culture.
Tea was “the social beverage of the 18th century,” (5) and its power continued into the early 19th century, when the particular cup studied was created. Unlike coffee, tea was the beverage of the domestic sphere, a symbol of home gatherings and socializing for family and friends. The ritual surrounding tea transformed it into a status symbol for the elite, because although tea was widely available in 1820, few people had the money to purchase the extensive apparatus required for a proper ceremony. Much prestige was placed on a fashionable arrangement of teatime objects, from the cups displayed around the teapot (generally the centerpiece), to the slop bowl, silver tongs, creamer, sugar container, and tea canister. Knowing how to properly arrange these items was important for displaying social status and savvy. To show off their know-how, many early American families commissioned paintings of themselves drinking tea, surrounded by their prestige goods (6).
Tea was not merely for the immediate family, however. As a French visitor to Philadelphia observed in 1795, “the whole family is united at tea, to which friends, acquaintances, and even strangers are invited.” (7) Regardless of gender or age, tea parties were the primary way to socialize with friends, neighbors, and visitors at the time. Guests were expected to provide lively conversation, and were also expected to understand the appropriate handling of a teacup. For instance, a hostess was expected to continually fill a guest’s cup so long as it remained upturned. To signal that one was done drinking, proper behavior was to reverse the cup onto the saucer and place a teaspoon over the top (8). This seemingly senseless movement was important to the ritual, and records show that foreigners were not always aware of this peculiarity and often committed social faux pas, immediately labeling them as the “other.”
In the context of the time it was created, the teacup was beautiful, but ordinary. However, two hundred years later the ordinary teacup has been transformed into a work of art by placing it in a museum. The RISD museum placed it in a curio cabinet built into the wall of a reconstructed Federalist-era dining hall. This effort to place it in its original context is in fact misleading, as the items around it were all assembled in the early 20th century when the museum was created. The artifacts and furniture surrounding the teacup share common characteristics due to the period in which they were created (and many of them were also produced in China for the export market), but are fundamentally not an assemblage of the time. Furthermore, in an effort to show the variety of items available at the time the teacup has been separated from its set, a practice that would have been considered abhorrent during the time in which it was created, when china teacups were only sold in large quantities. This further removes it from its primary context as a ritual object. Its position in a curio cabinet is very different from the prominent displays of tea sets seen in 18th and 19th century paintings, in which a silver teapot and group of ceramic cups often occupied prime status as symbols of affluence. The dining room at the RISD Museum is unavoidably static, frozen in time behind velvet ropes. The artifacts within were once utilitarian and very ordinary, but have been made special by limited access and display in a museum, instantly marking them as “rare.”
The RISD teacup may look like an innocuous piece of “craft” in a museum with a Warhol, but it carries with it centuries of cultural tradition and history. Its presence speaks to a cultural ritual no longer practiced that helped to establish social identity and ties as the United States sought to form its image as an independent nation. Although such cups are now housed in museums or stored in family curio cabinets, they once were an integral part of the daily life of the community. It has lost much of its cachet and social association in the United States, but tea is still widely consumed by its citizens. The dainty china cups have now turned to plastic travel containers, or the Styrofoam disposable cups with Starbucks insignia, but the beverage within remains unchanged.
1. RISD placard
2. Placard, ibid
3. Le Corbellier, Clare. China Trade Porcelain: Patterns of Exchange. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1974, pp.4.
4. Howard, David and John Ayers. Masterpieces of Chinese Export Porcelain from the Mottahedeh Collection in the Virginia Museum. London: Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, 1980. pp. 27.
5. Roth, Rodris. “Tea Drinking in 18th Century America: Its Etiquette and Equipage.” Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 225 (1963) .(61-91), pp.63.
6. Roth, 90-91.
7. Moreau de Saint-Méry, M.L.E., Moreau de Saint-Méry’s American Journey. Trans. and ed. Kenneth Roberts and Anne M. Roberts. Garden City: Doubleday, 1947, pp.266.
8. Roth, 72.
Howard, David and John Ayers. Masterpieces of Chinese Export Porcelain from the Mottahedeh Collection in the Virginia Museum. London: Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, 1980.
Le Corbellier, Clare. China Trade Porcelain: Patterns of Exchange. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1974.
Moreau de Saint-Méry, M.L.E. Moreau de Saint-Méry’s American Journey. Trans. and ed. Kenneth Roberts and Anne M. Roberts. Garden City: Doubleday, 1947.
Mudge, Jean McClure. Chinese Export Porcelain for the American Trade. East Brunswick: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1981.
Reade, Arthur. Tea and Tea Drinking. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1884.
Roth, Rodris. “Tea Drinking in 18th Century America: Its Etiquette and Equipage.” Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 225 (1963), pp. 61-91.