Thursday, November 1, 2018

History of the Children's Tea Set

My recent teaware history posts led me to learn all about 18th century European porcelain. During my research I came across a reference to an early children's tea set. I thought it would be interesting to learn a little bit more about the history behind children's tea sets. So of course, I went off on a research adventure that I'm ready to share with all of you.

It appears that children's tea sets were created before the formula for porcelain was discovered in Europe. The earliest sets, some from the sixteenth century, would have been made out of pewter or copper, and in some cases even gold or silver! A bit of the history is mentioned in an article written by Emile Decker (original article not available but can be found reproduced here), the curator of the Musées de Sarreguemines:
The first records of tea-sets as toys for children appeared in the sixteenth century. They were made in pewter and copper, and came from Germany, a country known for producing toys in wood and metal...Before the era of the toy tea-sets that came out of the kilns of faience [tin glazed earthenware] and porcelain manufacturers, there was a period when they were made in gold and silver, in pottery and pewter, in metal and copper. Silversmiths placed all their savoir-faire at the service of the young princesses of Europe.

Can you imagine owning a little gold tea set? I've been daydreaming about an elegant royal child's nursery, set up with an elaborate tea table just for play. Porcelain children's tea sets were produced in the 18th century, but just like the silver and gold sets they were only for the wealthiest families. The sets were generally very high quality, and just like the ones created in precious metals they were reserved for use on special occasions. The child's tea set really didn't start to become a popular household item until the early to mid-1800s, during the industrial revolution. Once again from Emile Decker:
Although the fashion for doll's tea-sets in faience and porcelain goes back to the eighteenth century, it was not yet an established phenomenon. First of all, because ceramic objects of a high quality for children were made only for wealthy customers, and secondly because these toys did not reach the height of their popularity until one century later, with the industrial revolution. Reports on the Exhibitions which were held throughout the nineteenth century indicate that the vogue for these toys goes back to the 1850's.The Universal Exhibition of 1855 seems to have been the starting point of their expansion. The toy industry went through an extraordinary growth in less than twenty years and became an economic activity in its own right.
In colonial American times tea was a family event, with everyone enjoying a break during the day. I've written a little bit about tea in colonial America, and it was interesting to read about the role of children's tea and tea sets. From Tea Drinking in 18th-Century America: Its Etiquette and Equipage by Rodris Roth (which is out of print but I was able to read online here):
No doubt, make-believe teatime and pretend tea drinking were a part of some children’s playtime activities. Perhaps many a little girl played at serving tea and dreamed of having a tea party of her own, but few were as fortunate as young Peggy Livingston who, at about the age of five, was allowed to invite “by card ... 20 young misses” to her own “Tea Party & Ball.” She “treated them with all good things, & a violin,” wrote her grandfather. There were “5 coaches at ye door at 10 when they departed. I was much amused 2 hours.”
A Family of Three at Tea by Richard Collins (1727). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

As it was in Europe, the fine porcelain sets available for wealthy children were a definite luxury. I loved reading Tea Drinking in 18th-Century America, and little miss Peggy Livingston certainly had a lavish tea set up. I can only imagine her 'Tea Party & Ball', and what it may have looked like! Let's read a little more about colonial tea sets, particularly the one belonging to Miss Livingston...
Tea sets were even available for the youngest hostess, and the “several compleat Tea-table Sets of Children’s cream-colored [ceramic] Toys” mentioned in a Boston advertisement of 1771 no doubt added a note of luxury to make-believe tea parties during playtime. The pieces in children’s tea sets...usually were like those of regular sets and differed only in size. Little Miss Livingston must have been happy, indeed, when her uncle wrote that he had sent "... a compleat tea-apparatus for her Baby [doll]. Her Doll may now invite her Cousins Doll to tea, & parade her teatable in form. This must be no small gratification to her. It would be fortunate if happiness were always attainable with equal ease."

I've had the above vintage child's tea set for years, I purchased it from an online auction when I first started getting into teaware collecting. The Littlest Tea Critic was young enough to play with it, although I admit I only let her play with it while supervised. Our set appears to be lusterware (tough to see in the photos but it has a nice iridescent glaze to it), and it is stamped 'made in Japan'. I'm guessing the set was made around the 1950s given the glaze and decorations. The cups are quite delicate, and the porcelain is very thin. Not exactly what a parent would want to give to little clumsy hands, but special enough to be cherished for many years. I love looking at it, imagining the many hours of play little girls created with it over the years. The Littlest Tea Critic and her brother have certainly enjoyed it.

Vintage sets such as these are so much more realistic than the plastic sets sold today. The photos of my set don't really show the size- even though they look like traditional tea cups, the cups are much smaller than a regular teacup. Slightly smaller than a demitasse cup. The handles are small, and not easy for adult hands to hold. The teapot is also small, but not as small as my gongfu pots. My vintage set is not as small as the pottery and plastic sets sold today. Those are often teeny tiny, and don't look remotely real.

The creation of early plastics and bakelite in the late 19th century marked a huge change in children's tea set design. Sets were still made in porcelain and more durable stoneware, but plastic sets soon started emerging. By the mid 20th century (about a decade or so after my little set was produced), plastic sets and sturdy stoneware became the norm. As a child I had a little pottery tea set. It was tiny, quite crudely made, and had images of a popular cartoon character on it. It was basically sized for a large doll, and not a child's hands. And I cherished that tiny tea set!

Did you have a tea set growing up? Have you read anything interesting about the history of children's tea sets? I'd love to learn more, so definitely drop me a line!


  1. Thanks so much for this blog. I write historical romance and I was writing a scene with a child as the protagonist. Naturally I wondered what she was playing with and for various reasons came up with a tea set. Then I wondered if they had actually been produced by the early 1790s and if they had was it realistic for this particular child to have had one. Now I now that the child who becomes my heroine had a little wooden tea set. Thank you!

    1. I'm so glad this post was helpful!! I do love a good historical romance, I am excited to read this one once you publish it. Thank you for letting me know that this helped! Happy writing!

  2. Any idea when tin tea sets became popular? I have an old house and a small collection of random things found on the grounds. One such item is a little tin plate with a dressed-up girl in the middle surrounded by roses. Its in poor shape, having been buried in the damp for so long, but I would love to have at least a general date or era to attach to it.

    1. Hi, interesting question! From my research I believe they were made starting in the early 1900s. My guess is they became more popular in the 20s-40s. Does yours have any markings on the bottom? We could research the company. I know Ohio Art produced many in the US.