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A History of the World in 100 Objects

A Victorian tea set

A Victorian tea set

by Neil MacGregor

As you read, use sticky notes to take notes about how the source connects to MacGregor’s points.

Early Victorian Tea Set:Stoneware and silver tea set, from Staffordshire, EnglandAD 1840–1845

What could be more domestic, more unremarkable, more British, than a nice cup of tea? You could of course put the question the other way round and ask what could be less British than a cup of tea, given that tea is made from plants grown in India or China and often sweetened by sugar from the Caribbean. It is one of the ironies of British national identity – or perhaps it says everything about our national identity – that the drink which has become the worldwide caricature of Britishness has nothing indigenous about it, but is the result of centuries of global trade and a complex imperial history. Behind the modern British cup of tea lie the high politics of Victorian Britain, the stories of nineteenth-century empire, of mass production and of mass consumption, the taming of an industrial working class, the reshaping of the agriculture of continents, the movement of millions of people, and a worldwide shipping industry.

By the middle of the nineteenth century in Britain some luxuries came to be seen as not only desirable but essential. The most ubiquitous of all was tea, a vital ingredient of life for every part of the British population. The object that highlights this change is a tea set made up of three pieces of red-brown stoneware: a smallish teapot about 14 centimetres (6 inches) high with a short straight spout, a sugar bowl and a milk jug. They were made – as we can read on their bases – at Wedgwood’s Etruria factory in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, in the heart of the Potteries. In the eighteenth century Josiah Wedgwood had made some of the most expensive stoneware ceramics – in jasper and basalt – in Britain, but this tea set shows that by the 1840s, when Wedgwood produced it, the company was aiming at a much wider market. This is quite clearly mid-range pottery, simple earthenware of a sort that many quite modest British households were then able to afford. But the owners of this particular set must have had serious social aspirations, because all three pieces have been decorated with a drape of lacy hallmarked silver. The historian Celina Fox explains that tea-time had become a very smart event:

In the 1840s the Duchess of Bedford introduces the ritual of afternoon tea, because by this time dinner had become so late, seven-thirty to eight o’clock, that it was a bit of a gap for the British tummy between lunchtime and evening. For a while there was a revival of tea-drinking, as a sort of meal for sandwiches and so forth, around four o’clock.

Among the upper classes, tea had been popular since before 1700. It received celebrity endorsement from Charles II’s queen, Catherine of Braganza, and from Queen Anne. It came from China, it was expensive, refreshingly bitter and drunk in tiny cups without milk or sugar. People kept their tea in locked tea caddies, as if it were a drug; for those who could afford it, it often was. In the 1750s Samuel Johnson confessed himself a happy addict:

A hardened and shameless tea drinker, who has for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant, whose kettle scarcely has time to cool, who with Tea amuses the evening, with Tea solaces the midnights, and with Tea welcomes the morning.

homeycontradictionsexaggerated representationnativerelating to an empirecommonThis city in central England is also known as The Potteries and has claimed the title World Capital of Ceramics.types of potteryelegantcontainersContinued

Copyright: From A HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 100 OBJECTS by Neil MacGregor, copyright (c) 2010 by the Trustees of the British Museum and the BBC. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

Edgenuity COPYRIGHT © by Edgenuity. All Rights Reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means or stored in a database or any retrieval system, without the prior written permission of Edgenuity.    Then use ctrl-c to copy the text to the clipboard. Close note SaveDeleteCancel

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