How Did Aristocratic Women Influence Tea Consumerism in 18th Century England?

‘Tea is the sparkling subject of my song, come, fairer sex, and listen to my tongue: for what you love so dearly, I defend.’

Duncan Campbell, 1735

Introduced to the English court in the seventeenth century by Catherine of Braganza, tea was available only to the aristocracy during the first half of the eighteenth century, but its popularity advanced through the period and influenced numerous developments; especially in connection to the ‘fairer sex.’ The material items that were created as the period progressed suggest that aristocratic women influenced the consumer goods that were developed in connection with tea. This entry will explore some of the items that developed in the eighteenth century in connection to tea-drinking and how they were influenced by women.

Francois de la Rochefoucauld described the aristocracy’s drinking of tea as ‘an opportunity to show off their fine possessions…all made to the most elegant designs,’ detailing how tea drinking was used as a chance to present their wealth through the items they had purchased. These material objects which developed during the Georgian period as utensils and decorations for both the tea-table and room in which it was consumed, reinforce the notion that tea was predominantly a feminine pursuit of the English aristocracy as, in some cases, women themselves were the ones who influenced how these objects were designed. As the drink’s popularity grew, there was a development in new objects such as milk jugs, kettle stands and tea caddies. This demand was the result of aristocratic consumerism as they were able to afford the new items that were being imported into England from China, before England was able to manufacture them themselves, an area which was also later dominated by aristocratic consumers.

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The Withdrawing Room, No.1 Royal Crescent, Bath.

While servants prepared the utensils for tea-drinking and the room in which it would be consumed, the rest of the tea-drinking ceremony would have been conducted by the women of the household. This can be seen in the particular pieces of furniture that would have been in the room during tea-drinking; especially the kettle stands, as seen in the picture of the Withdrawing Room at No.1 Royal Crescent, Bath. Jane Pettigrew argues that ‘it was essential that an elegant silver kettle should be available for the tea-brewing ritual’ and the development of these stands would have provided the space required for the kettles so that the hostess could prepare the tea for her visitors, while displaying her wealth through the kettle.

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Kandler, Charles Early Rococo Kettle.  

Kettles of the eighteenth century also reflect the notion that women influenced design are the kettles that developed during the Georgian period. Depicted above is a Charles Kandler kettle created between 1730 and 1732, conforming to the traditional design of silver kettles during the reign of George II. Influenced by the Rococo design that was inspiring both architecture and interior design during this period, kettles such as these would have presented a woman’s status and, as suggested by Robin Emerson, ‘provided an opportunity for people to show off their wealth and taste’ while at the tea-table. However, a woman’s interaction with the kettle ultimately influenced the development of these items. An aristocratic woman was expected to serve the tea, fulfilling her traditional role as hostess; but as the period developed these kettles were becoming more extravagant in design and consequently issues arose for the female users. With more elaborate decoration, as they attempted to present the wealth of their user, these items ultimately were becoming both heavier and difficult for the hostess’ use. As a result, in order to allow the woman to continue her role as hostess, kettles were redeveloped into the tea-urns that were coming into fashion in the 1760’s. Depicted below, these tea-urns were static, allowing a woman to serve the hot water without having to risk being perceived as lacking the elegance expected of them in their role as hostess.

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Unknown, Tea Urn.

It is clear that tea was a predominately a feminine pursuit of the aristocracy, particularly during the first half of the eighteenth century, allowing women the opportunity to present their skills as a hostess but also their wealth. The various accessories that emerged during this period for tea drinking reinforce the connection between women and tea and how the designs of these items were influenced by female interaction.

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