Thursday, June 27, 2019

History of Tiny Tea Sets


I was recently gifted a vintage tiny tea set. The amazing attention to detail on the set had me wondering when these little sets became popular, and how I could start collecting more. As I learned about these beautiful little tea sets, I realized there was an interesting history to share.

History Of Tiny Tea Sets- The Dollhouse 
Miniature tea sets are too small for traditional dolls, but the perfect size for a beautiful dollhouse. So to learn more about them, I started looking at the history of dollhouses. Sure enough, these sets were made for tiny houses. I was lucky enough to have a dollhouse growing up, and my daughter now has the grand Victorian house, hand build by my artistic father. Dollhouses can be little slices of history, and can take dozens of years to build and furnish.

Miniature Dragonware Tea set and photo provided by Jo-Ani Johnson
I've written about the history of children's tea sets before, but these sets are much smaller. The first dollhouse tea sets weren't actually meant for children at all, but for adults. The history goes back to the 16th century, where Dockenhaus (small houses) or 'baby houses' were collected to display wealth. Just like early porcelain teaware, dollhouses were created to flaunt the riches of the owner. They could be replicas of the owner's home, or just beautiful houses in their own right. The rooms were furnished with painstaking attention to detail. Tea sets weren't a part of dollhouse collecting until tea became popular in Western Europe. From Forbes magazine:
Tiny tea sets or pieces of furniture weren't originally made as children's playthings, even though their small scale shares a natural affinity with the proportions of childhood. Miniatures have been made and collected in Europe since the 17th century, when miniature pieces of silver became one of the first great collecting crazes.
In Holland and other European countries these dollhouses looked more like grand cabinets, with rooms to display the treasures and trinkets acquired by their owner. Up until the mid 19th century, these 'baby houses' were costly as they were custom made for each owner. The tiny houses were also used for young women to learn how to manage the household.

miniature tea pots and photo provided by Jo-Ani Johnson

Miniature tea sets for dollhouses were created for grand collectors in silver and fine porcelain, but they start to pop up more frequently in the Victorian era, where they can be found in brass, porcelain, clay, and wood. Mini tea sets were mass produced in the 19th century which made them more affordable.

Once industrialization began, dollhouses became less expensive and were considered toys for children. At the time, if a child owned a dollhouse, they were encouraged to create the miniatures to furnish them instead of just purchasing premade pieces. Later, mass-produced furniture and houses became the norm.

Frans Hals Museum dollhouse. Credit Sailko, website
If you're interested in viewing doll houses from the past, there are many museums that have them on display. Next time I'm in London I may need to see Queen Mary's Doll House from the 1920s. It was commissioned to have every detail of the royal home, including running water and flushing toilets! And my favorite part, from this Medium article:
The Strong Room contains a complete set of miniature crown jewels; a flowery trellis on the ceiling of the King’s Bedroom includes the opening bars of the National Anthem in its design; and the Saloon holds a pair of miniature throne chairs. The Queen added her own items to the House, too, including a miniature dolls’ tea service in copper (presented to Queen Mary by her mother) and a small model of a mouse made by the firm of Faberge.
Collecting Miniature Tea Sets
So, where to start collecting your own miniature tea sets? First you'll want to focus on a time period. This will also determine the quality you'll find. Pieces from the Victorian era and earlier are more likely to be handmade and have fine details. Anything post war through the end of the 20th century will more likely be mass-produced. But there are still hand made pieces to be found in all time periods, and really you should collect what speaks to you. It doesn't matter if it's mass-produced or hand made, look for things you enjoy. If you're purchasing online, you'll find sets of all sorts of quality on etsy, ebay, and ruby lane. Sets can run a few dollars for a 20th century set made in Japan, up to the thousands for an antique French porcelain set. You can peruse antiques stores and local auctions to find miniature sets as well, but they may be a bit difficult to find. Dollhouse stores sell new sets, and there's no reason why you can't start there. New sets such as these are lovely to look at, and aren't a huge investment.

Mini yixing and mamma pot, photo provided by Jo-Ani Johnson
I'll definitely be keeping my eyes open for more vintage miniature tea sets in the future. Just like standard-sized teaware, once you're bitten by the collecting bug, it's tough to stop! If you have your own special miniature tea sets, I'd love to hear about them.

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