What are "Tea Things"?
Updated: Feb 28
Drinking tea, making tea, or using "tea-things" are often mentioned in Austen's works. Elizabeth Bennet hopes that after the tea things are removed she might talk with Darcy, but he gets roped into playing cards at another table. Catherine Morland is embarrassed to not know any gentleman to bring them tea and to have no tea things at their table in the Upper Rooms. Fanny Price's sister is sent to the kitchen to tell the servant to put the water on and bring the tea things as soon as she can.
Sometimes, tea-things were a distraction, like for Fanny in Mansfield Park:
(Edmund) came to her, sat down by her, took her hand, and pressed it kindly; and at that moment she thought that, but for the occupation and the scene which the tea–things afforded, she must have betrayed her emotion in some unpardonable excess.
and in Sense and Sensibility:
(Colonel Brandon) made no answer; and soon afterwards, by the removal of the tea-things, and the arrangement of the card parties, the subject was necessarily dropped.
Aside from being a convenient way to avoid something, what were "tea-things"?
Tea things were just what they sound like: utensils used for making and drinking tea. For more detail on its popularity and what tea was drunk, my blog post about Georgian tea, Twining, and Jane Austen. Here, I'm going to focus on what was on the tea table.
First is the tea urn, seen labeled one in the image above and below with its spout attached. They could be brass, bronze, copper, or silver and sometimes lined with tin. Water was kept hot by a hot iron bar that hangs from a perforated plate near the top.
The tea itself was also brought out to the table. Tea caddies were lockable chests that were made from porcelain, silver, painted enamel, and woods like mahogany, rosewood, or satinwood that were often inlaid with ivory, ebony or silver.
The use of a jar style tea caddy waned at the end of the 19th century and the use of a box increased. That meant using different caddies for green and black tea was abandoned, and the wooden caddy became more popular, with a lid and a lock, and with two divisions for tea, and often a third section for sugar.
How do you measure the correct amount of loose tea? You use a caddy spoon. They originally had long, slim handles to fit inside those taller jars. However, they were gradually shortened until the spoon was short enough to fit inside the tea chest for easy storage.
If your caddy didn't also hold sugar, there would also be a sugar bowl with the tea things, along with one or two teapots, a milk jug, strainers, and a "slop bowl", a basin for drinkers to pour their leftover tea into.
Depending on the time period, the style of your tea things might be a little different. In the middle to late 18th century, coffee cups had handles, and tea cups were more like bowl-shaped and were handleless. Tea was also sometimes drunk from its saucer.
Around 1800, new styles with neoclassical elements were more popular. Tea cups now had handles and coffee cups now had their more familiar, smaller can shape. Tea sets would come with a teapot and stand, as well as 8-12 coffee cups and the same numbers of tea cups, along with 12 saucers. (No need for a saucer for each cup--you can only drink one at a time.) There might have been a large plate for food, but there was no matching coffee pot or matching food plates at this time.
After around 1810, the styles became even more decorative, often with Japanese-influence styling and more elaborate patterns and gilding. The "London shape" coffee cup was very fashionable between 1810-1825. They had a slightly tapered base with an angular handle.
Tea and tea-things in Austen's works were often used as a vehicle for conversation—or for avoiding one—and serving and drinking tea was the means to join the dinner that preceded it to the evening that followed. My tea tins might not be locked and I usually drink from a mug rather than a teacup and saucer. But even though I use an electric tea kettle, I think my tea-things would still be recognizable to Jane.
Do you drink loose leaf tea? What accoutrements do you use to make your favorite drink?
Georgian and Regency “Tea-Things”: Artistry, Mystery, and Marketing. JASNA presentation October 2020 by Linda Slothouber.