A Historical Overview
According to Chou Kao-ch'i, author of Yang-Hsien ming hu hsi, an account of Ihing teapots, early in the sixteenth century, the potters at Ihing, a few miles up to Yangtze from Shanghai,
became famous for teapots known to Europeans by the Portuguese name boccarro (large mouth). These were small, individual pots. which came to Europe with teas and served as models for the
first European teapots.
Other scholars have discounted this history and say that the Chinese, though they provided
Europe with her first tea, did not historically use teapots. Instead they brewed tea directly in the
cup, letting the leaves sink to the bottom before drinking. Such teacups are still used in many
Chinese restaurants today, however the modern productions are clumsy and rough as compared
with those turned out during the latter half of the Ming dynasty.
Some believe the design source for teapots may have come from one of two influences reaching
Europe in the mid-1600's. The first was the Islamic coffee pots, which were first seen in the
popular coffee houses of Europe and England during this period. (Indeed, for some years there
was no design difference between coffee pots and teapots.) The second design source might have
been the Chinese wine vessels then being imported as a curiosity piece. Unsure what its purpose
was, it may have been assumed it was used with the imported tea in which it was packed
(literally, to prevent breakage during the long trip from China.) The Earl Cadogan, whose estates
were located in Staffordshire, the future center of English porcelain production, was the first
Englishman recorded to have owned such a Chinese "wine pourer". It was globular in shape,
foreshadowing the future design of the majority of teapots produced in Europe.
Teapots as a European Invention
It can then be said, that though tea was originally Chinese, the teapot design of today is basically
European. The first teapots created in Europe were of a heavy cast with short, straight,
replaceable spouts unlike the first teapot made by the Chinese which was similar to the wine
pourer but very unsuitable for the purpose. (The latter was important as the pottery was fragile
and spouts often broke.) Other variations that occurred during this early period were octagonal
and melon shaped teapots as well as "fantasy" teapots designed as plants or animals. Such teapots
favored domestic forms such as squirrels and rabbits or newer "exotic" forms such as camels,
monkeys, and bunches of bamboo. These early teapots were, however, viewed as failures due to
the poor quality of clay and workmanship. Europe, though she had "designed" the teapot, lacked
the porcelain technology to produce a quality teapot.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the East India Company, recognized the growing
demand for such items as teapots and began importation in larger numbers. The increased cargo
served an additional function-that of ballast in the trade ships. The company commissioned china
directly from Chinese artists and craftsmen, using patterns sent from England and geared to
European tastes, stereotypes, and market values. Designs fell into four main areas: mock-ups of
Oriental designs (such as "Blue Willow" and "The Tree of Life"), designs adapted from European
prints (such as the famous Georgian "house" teapots), armorials (bearing the coat of arms for
major European families), and the innovative teapots (such as those with the now standard spout
drain on the interior of the teapot). Company directors were especially concerned that teapots not
drip and so stain the valuable linen that they also marketed.