History@Portsmouth

University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Using Material Culture: 19th Century British Porcelain Teapot

Adam O’Leary, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, wrote the following blog on the 19th century British Porcelain teapot for the Introduction to Historical Research Unit. In the blog Adam discusses the ways in which historians can use sources such as this to better understand society’s attitudes and assumptions in the 18th and 19th centuries. The unit is co-ordinated by Dr Maria Cannon, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Portsmouth. 

Hilditch and Sons teapot c. 1825

British ceramics are some of the most common artefacts found on archaeological sites of the later 18th and 19th centuries, and have rightly been the subject of considerable archaeological attention internationally. [1] In this blog, the reasons for such widespread use of British ceramics will be assessed through British Porcelain teapots. British Porcelain teapots were a staple of a British middle-class household in the 18th and 19th centuries as one of a number of material items that emphasised a person’s wealth, class and politeness. [2] Due to Britain’s world influence as both colonisers and suppliers of industrial items, this British culture leaked into other countries all over the world. [3] Such British cultural influence on other countries will be assessed in the blog through their adoption of British Porcelain teapots as a fashion or status item. The strengths and weaknesses of using a material source to gauge such influence will also be outlined, along with the impact of British Porcelain teapots on British culture.

In order to analyse the impact of a British Porcelain item, it must first be briefly outlined how porcelain as a whole became incorporated into British society as a valuable material. Originally produced and imported from China, during the late 18th century Britain’s ceramics – including porcelain – were deemed to display “sufficient design excellence and quality manufacture.” [4] This modern style of quality production was distinct from the “traditional crafts of French artisans or the repetitive workings of Chinese potters” because it was aided by the “mechanical advances of scientists, engineers and rational men.” [5] As displayed in the source, British porcelain items were commonly trimmed with gold lines making them distinct to those produced by others and added status value. [6] Therefore, the mass production of porcelain teapots underscores Britain’s industrial and consumer power as they were able to take a product, which was originally Asian, and produce it at a quality and mass that Asian markets could not compete with. Moreover, this mass production of porcelain items, including teapots, along with the adoption of porcelain items around the globe and in the colonies, can be attributed to the influence and diffusion of British culture rather than Chinese culture.

However, it can also be argued that this 19th century British teapot underscores Chinese influence on British high culture, showing how Britain’s culture has largely been shaped through the exploration of other cultures. As mentioned earlier, porcelain items such as teapots were a Chinese invention, so just the adoption of using them would highlight an adoption of Chinese culture. Forbye, the design of the actual British teapot, also resembled that of the Chinese version and thus emphasised Chinese culture. This is made evident through the inspection of the source as the scene repeated on both sides of the teapot features a Chinese woman holding a bird cage and a Chinese man smoking a long pipe. [7] The adoption of, and value placed on, Asian creations such as these porcelain teapots emphasises that the British people viewed Asian creations and culture as elegant and beautiful. Such a statement would contradict the argument made by Edward Said in his critically acclaimed book Orientalism. Said claimed that Eastern culture was being viewed and portrayed in a negative light in the West. [8] However, this is in divergence with the source as the adoption of this part of Chinese culture would highlight Eastern culture as being valued in the West. Nonetheless, Said does point out the numerous works of Western writers such as Renan, Lane, Flaubert, Marx and Lamartine who portrayed Eastern culture and peoples as inferior to those in the west. [9] Therefore, this brings prominence to the importance of using material culture sources as either a means of cross referencing other sources or as a means to supplement another source. If material sources are left to stand alone the historian could easily misinterpret the significance of the source as the material source makes the job of the historian one of interpretation. [10]

The use of Porcelain teapots within 19th century British society can help the historian ascertain many aspects of British culture. Firstly, it accentuates the importance of status within society. The intended use of a teapot is merely to steep tea leaves in boiling water ready to serve. However, in 19th century British society it was used as an indication of wealth and class in addition to the primary function. This is supported by Crook who outlines how teapots were mass produced in Britain with different styles and patterns; the more stylistic the more expensive they were and thus wealthy British people would purchase the expensive more decorative pots in order to impress a guest who may visit for tea. [11] Additionally, the mass production of teapots and variance in price illustrates that the tea pots were targeted at people from various different social groups which foregrounds the expansion of the tea drinking culture into the working classes in the 19th century. Sarah Richards reinforces such an assertion as she states that in 1800 tea, coffee and sugar were accessible to most working people in England, which meant that the upper classes could no longer use tea drinking as a means of showing off their status but instead resorted to using teapots. [12] Therefore, material culture is useful to historians, as Karen Harvey highlights, to “discover the beliefs, values, ideas, attitudes and assumptions of a particular community.” [13] In this case the porcelain teapot brings prominence to the values and ideas of politeness and status within 19th century British Society while also giving an insight into the progression of Britain’s international trade, through the commonality of tea drinking.

Consequently, the field of material culture provides valuable details to the historian that can either reinforce or question other sources, and thus it should be regarded as a complementary technique within the conventional tool kit of the historian. [14]

Notes

[1] Aileen Connor and Rachel Clarke, “At the Centre of the Web: Later Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Ceramics from Huntingdon Town Centre in an International Context” in The Importance of British Material Culture to Historical Archaeologies of the Nineteenth Century ed. Alasdair Brooks (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 29.

[2] Sarah Richards, Eighteenth-century Ceramics: Products for a Civilised Society (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 1.

[3] Penny Crook, “’Home’-Made: Exploring the Quality of British Domestic Goods in Nineteenth-Century Urban Assemblages” in The Importance of British Material Culture to Historical Archaeologies of the Nineteenth Century ed. Alasdair Brooks (Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 307.

[4] Crook, “Home-Made”, 308.

[5] Crook, “Home-Made”, 308.

[6] Crook, “Home-Made”, 309.

[7] Catherine Beth Lippert, Eighteenth-century English Porcelain in the Collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (Indianapolis: Indianapolis University Press, 1987), 270.

[8] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

[9] Abdullah Al-Dabbagh, “Fortieth Anniversary Review of Books: Edward Said Orientalism”, The Sixteenth Century Journal 40, no.1 (2018): 29.

[10] Karen Harvey, “Introduction”, in Historians and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Interpreting Alternative Sources ed. Karen Harvey (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), 6.

[11] Crook, “Home-Made”, 309.

[12] Richards, Eighteenth-Century Ceramics, 131.

[13] Harvey, “Introduction”, 6.

[14] Otto Sibum, “AHR Conversation: Historians and Material Culture”, American Historical Review 144 (2009).

 

 

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