Wedgwood tea set

About the object

Tea arrives in Europe

Tea was first imported into Britain from China in the mid 1600s by the East India Company. Due to the Company’s monopoly on trade with China and the high taxes levied on it, tea remained very expensive throughout the much of the 1700s, and could only be afforded by the affluent. Likewise, ceramics for tea drinking were also luxury items that were mostly being imported from China. Tea drinking thus became associated with elite culture.

In the second half of the 1700s, spotting a gap in the market for alternatives to expensive Chinese porcelain, British firms such as Wedgwood began experimenting with alternative formulas for porcelain and making their own high-quality tableware to meet consumer demands.

Tea and opium

The period between the 1760s and the 1830s saw a drop in the price of tea as the British government passed a series of acts to lower duties on it. As a result, tea drinking became increasingly popular, not now just among the wealthy, but also among the working classes. Since China did not offer a market for manufactured goods from Europe, Britain could only meet the demand for tea by exporting silver bullion to China, which resulted in a trade deficit. At the same time, the demand for opium by the Chinese was also on the rise. The British seized the opportunity and promoted the opium trade in order to pay for the import of Chinese tea, at the same time rendering India, where opium was produced, an even more highly profitable colony.

In 1839, concerned at the growing numbers addicted to the drug, the Chinese imperial government began to impose a bond on foreign suppliers banning all import of opium. This led to the outbreak of the First Opium War, which lasted until 1842. The British victory resulted in the resumption of the opium trade, the opening up of China to British and European commercial interests and the acquisition of Hong Kong as a British colony. It was precisely in this period that the Wedgwood tea set was manufactured.

Hand craftsmanship in the age of mass production

The Industrial Revolution in Britain is generally regarded as having started around 1760, coinciding neatly with the foundation of the Wedgwood pottery business in 1759. Wedgwood was a leading figure in the innovations of this period, experimenting with raw materials and designs and introducing the use of powerful steam engines to operate factory machinery in order to improve mass production. By the 1840s, objects previously considered a luxury - such as teapots - could now be produced more quickly and cheaply, and high quality ceramic tableware was common in middle-class households.

It is interesting to note that this particular tea set, with what is otherwise quite a modest, mass-produced design, has been embellished for a wealthier client, in this case Queen Adelaide, wife of the late king William IV. The manufacturer has reintroduced hand craftsmanship to the production process, applying delicate silver mounts to give the tea set a much more expensive and exclusive appearance.

More information

About the tea set
Find out more about the tea set: A History of the World in 100 objects on the BBC – listen to the programme or read the transcript.

History of tea
A brief history of tea, including a section on the tea clippers.

The Opium Wars (2002)
A 2002 article in History Today about the Opium Wars.

Another look at the Opium Wars (2012)
2012 re-appraisal of the article above.

Powering Wedgwood’s factory
Information about the introduction of steam power in Wedgwood’s factory at Etruria.

Next section: A bigger picture

Wedgwood tea set