Thursday, April 18, 2019

Infused in History: A Tea Exhibit

One of my favorite things to write about is tea history. I love immersing myself in the traditions and and culture of tea, especially teaware. I get completely swept up in imagining what drinking tea was like during various time periods. Recently, friend and fellow blogger Lynn Karegeannes reached out to see if I could write a few panels for a tea exhibit she's helping to curate at the Smith-McDowell House Museum, a historic house in Asheville, North Carolina. The exhibit is titled Infused In History: A Tea Exhibit.

The Exhibit
Infused In History opens April 24th and runs through September. From the Smith-McDowell House website:
Beginning April 24, come to the Smith-McDowell House and add TEA to your TOUR! Each of our exhibit rooms will feature tea-related items and educational panels about the history, use and practice of taking tea. We have searched our collection and will have some ‘new’ treasures to display as well as some ‘on loan’ items of interest.
Lynn asked if I would contribute two panels for the exhibit, and I decided to write one on the history of European porcelain and the Meissen factory, and another on the development of handles on tea cups. Bruce Richardson of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas is the historical consultant for the exhibit, and it was so exciting to have him read my panels.

European Porcelain History
I've posted about the history of teacup handles before, so I thought I'd write a little bit about what I learned about European porcelain, perhaps to spark your interest in the exhibit.

I thought the origin of the word 'porcelain' itself was quite interesting. The word was first used by explorer Marco Polo, who encountered the material while traveling through China. The delicate, material reminded Polo of a seashell, and so he described it using the Portuguese term porcellana, a type of cowrie shell.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, Europe was crazy for the porcelain teaware exported from China starting in the 1700s, and many artisans and entrepreneurs were desperately trying to recreate the material without much success. But with the amount of teaware Europeans required, it was crucial to find a way of manufacturing it closer to home.

So, when did Europe finally discover the 'white gold'? German alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger is credited as discovering a formula for hard-paste porcelain in 1708.  Böttger was originally trying to create gold (he was an alchemist, after all) when he attracted the attention of Augustus the Strong, the gold-hungry Elector of Saxony and ruler of Poland. Augustus ended up imprisoning Böttger in the hopes of forcing him to create gold, but through his experiments Böttger ended up making porcelain instead. It’s difficult to pinpoint which manufacturer started creating porcelain first, but in 1710 Böttger’s discovery led Augustus The Strong to establish the Meissen factory in Germany, which became the first to manufacture porcelain in large quantities and unrivaled quality.

Learn More 
If you're as crazy for teaware history as I am, I hope you can check out the exhibit! Please do report back if you get there, and let me know what you think. Be sure to check out Lynn's blog to learn even more about this exhibit. Also have a look at the calendar of events for the exhibit, as there are some interesting things happening, including a lecture by Bruce Richardson. If I lived closer, I'd be in the front row!


  1. That is so exciting! The museum is lucky to have found someone so knowledgeable about tea history

    1. There is a great team of people involved in this exhibit! I am so happy to be a part of it.