Tea During Colonial Times

A Trip to Colonial Williamsburg

A white ceramic teapot decorated in dark red flourishes. In the center is painted the words \'No Stamp Act\' in red.

Last weekend, my husband and I took a trip to Colonial Williamsburg. It was an amazing opportunity to look at what life was like in Virginia during the 18th century. One point of interest for me, of course, was the tea drinking habits of the colonists during that time period.

Growing up, every child in the United States learns about the tea tax that was imposed by the British crown prior to the Revolutionary War. To protest this tax, the American colonists boarded a cargo ship and threw the tea into the Boston harbor - the Boston Tea Party. But just how popular was tea in colonial America? And how did people prepare their tea? To find out more, I enquired with some of the researchers in Colonial Williamsburg.

Tin Kettles and Pots

During the 18th century, many household goods were made of tin, and the tinsmith working in Colonial Williamsburg had crafted and displayed a wide variety of items. Of course, one item immediately caught my eye - a tin kettle.

A slanted tin kettle with a flat base and a bent spout, surrounded by other kitchenware.

"Is this a tea kettle?" I asked the tinsmith.

"Yes, this would have been used to boil water for tea and coffee," he replied.

"Ah, I see. So, which was more popular during the colonial period - tea or coffee?" I asked. He paused for a moment.

"Actually, both tea and coffee were very popular", he explained. "In fact, I have both a coffee pot and a tea pot here." As I looked around, I found a short, cylindrical vessel that was undoubtedly a tin teapot, along with a few tin cups. He explained that several alloys were also available at the time, including pewter and bronze.

A cylindrical tin teapot surrounded by four cylindrical teacups with handles.

He continued that much of the tea in the 18th century was smuggled to colonists illegally, and that the British crown tried to monopolize the tea trade via the British East India Company. Despite this tea-related conflict between the crown and the colonists, tea drinking remained common practice for many people.

Tea in the Parlor

In Colonial Williamsburg, the homes of several well-to-do families were open for touring. An important feature of these homes was the parlor, which was used for entertaining guests. Specifically, the ladies sat in the parlor for tea and conversation while the men stayed in a separate room to smoke their pipes and discuss topics such as business and politics. In the parlor shown below, the ceramic teaware is visible in the corner.

An elegant room with red, patterned wallpaper and a wood floor. Decorative chairs are arranged around the perimeter of the room. A tea table sits in the corner. In the other corner is a shelf with ceramic teaware.

Serving tea to guests was considered such an important part of high-society life that these families began gifting toy tea sets to little girls as a way to help them "practice". Thus began the pretend play activity of serving tea to dolls, which many children still do today. 

Six play tea sets for children. Five are ceramic, and one is metal and includes a tea urn.

The Tea Urn

To prevent the water from cooling while serving tea, a tea urn was sometimes used. The tea urn was filled with water, with a spout near the base. To heat the water, hot iron would be placed inside a container that was placed in the urn. In some cases, a lamp was lit below the base. The concept is very similar to a Russian samovar.

A metal tea urn with handles on either side and a raised base.

Fashionable Chinese and Japanese Teaware

Early ceramic materials were primarily made in China and sometimes in Japan. East Asian ceramic teaware was therefore seen as a novelty for those who could afford it.

 A Chinese-style ceramic teapot and matching cup. The cup does not have a handle. Both the cup and pot are white and decorated with red and blue floral designs.

A Japanese-style cup and saucer. The saucer has a hexagonal shape, and the cup has no handle. Both the cup and saucer depict a woman in traditional attire. The saucer also includes images of birds and flowers. 

A Variety of Materials

Soon, European and American companies began to make their own ceramic products. Several adaptations to teaware were also made - for instance, handles were added to teacups. The oversized ceramic teapot shown below sat in front of a ceramic shop to attract customers.

A very large ceramic teapot. The color is off-white and decorated with a tan and blue design. On the teapot is written: \'Richard Lucas, Potter, Ely, Dealer in Glass, China, and Earthenware. Wholesale and Retail.\'

In addition, other types of materials continued to be used. These included bronze, silver, and pewter.

A collection of bronze, tin, ceramic, and earthenware tea pots. 11 teapots are shown.

...So, what do you think? If you could travel back in time, would you like to take tea in the 18th century? I would!

About The Author

A photo of Tara in a garden wearing a decorative white shirt.Tara Eicher is a collector of information, a lover of science and history, and a lifelong lover of tea! She enjoys trying different types of tea and learning about tea culture around the world.

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