This is about globalization, even though it is the 18th century. There are new fashionable beverages very much in demand.(1)..chocolate, coffee, and tea…and they come from far away; America, the Middle East, and China.
China is exporting tons of tea to Europe, and the tea cups and teapots needed to enjoy it are coming too, as a sellable ballast in the clipper ships. The Europeans want tea; before they discovered tea (and coffee and chocolate) the water wasn’t safe to drink without boiling or adding alcohol to kill germs. Tea and coffee made made boiled water tasty, and perhaps medicinal, and the new beverages became a sought after novelty. But to pay for the tea and the elegant tea cups and teapots Europe had to send gold and silver to China. There was nothing European the Chinese wanted in trade.
European monarchs were distraught at the unfavorable balance of trade (like President Trump). They would still need to pay for the tea, but maybe they could steal the secret Chinese technology and produce the beautiful tea cups and pots that their aristocracy insisted on buying.
The Chinese had been making beautiful porcelain for centuries, and gradually the blue-and-white of the Ming Dynasty (2) had become fashionable in the West. There had been 17th century European imitations of Chinese porcelain like Delft ware in Holland [ (3) (4) (5)], Rouen earthenware in France, and imitations of Delft in England, painted to look Chinese, but they were not porcelain, and the unsightly brown pottery base would appear when they chipped, as they often did, because earthenware was much heavier yet more breakable than porcelain.
Augustus the Strong, King of Poland, hired alchemist Johann Bottger to find the secret of porcelain and in 1709 he found the kaolin clay that could be fired at very high temperature. In 1710 Meissen began manufacturing porcelain that could compete with the Chinese (6) (7)). It is often difficult to tell whether something is from China or Europe. Other countries, unhappy at sending their gold to Germany as much as to China, gradually learned the secret, found the necessary kaolin, and started manufacturing their own porcelain, often imitating the Chinese patterns or the Meissen ones, like Blue Onion [(8)]. These early industries began, as Meissen had, as under royal patronage. Their products were often made as diplomatic gifts, or for the use of the rulers and their courtiers.
Blue-and-white remained popular, as did Chinese influenced designs like flowers and landscapes and pagodas, eventually in popular patterns like Blue Willow, which was made as transferware [(9)]
Gradually China began producing new colors through overglaze enamels added after the original firing [(10) (11) (11A) (12)], and so did Europe, and they both experimented with new subjects that would appeal to a new wealthy bourgeois market. There were Export Ware plates with portraits of Europeans (13), sailing ships (14), coats of arms (15), religious figures[(16)], and in Europe the local flora and fauna were often realistically shown [(17) (18)].
For decoration, as at the John Brown house, vases in traditional Chinese shapes were imported [PHOTO], small figures decorated tables and large animals and birds made prestigious sculptures [(19)]. They also imported decorative items that would be made more European with bronze or porcelain additions [(20) (21)].
Tea drinking in Europe was different from in China. Cups had to be bigger, they needed handles because tea was drunk much hotter to dissolve the sugar more quickly. They needed new items, like pots for milk. [(22)]. In Europe cups were usually made with handles, and an industry grew up adding handles to imported Chinese cups. Interestingly, while coffee became something that one drank in a convivial coffee house because brewing it was complicated, tea was something easy to make so it became a drink one made for oneself, or for a friend, without the presence of servants. Even King Louis XV of France made his own tea, and his queen and Marie Antoinette both traveled with sets that allowed them to make a cup or two of tea themselves ].Maris Leszinska’s set had Chinese cups [(23)] because in 1729 France wasn’t yet producing porcelain, but Marie Antoinette’s had Sevres [(24) (25)].
What happened in the end?The British and eventually American merchants found they could pay the Chinese for tea by importing opium from India to China, and the Chinese government was powerless to prevent them. Both tea and porcelain became commonplace as porcelain was manufactured inexpensively with transferware and tea was grown in British India. Non-aristocratic families took it up and it became widespread but not particularly fashionable. I bought 100 tea bags for $3 and 100 pieces of Blue Onion bone china for $50. People found different items to show their social status…expensive cars, furs, designer handbags or shoes. Tea and porcelain became ordinary commodities.