The first vessels made for consuming tea were actually teabowls, which the Chinese used to drink a soup-like concoction made from a small cake of ground, roasted tea leaves. When porcelain migrated to Europe in the 18th century, tea drinkers were reluctant to place these bowls onto their expensive furniture, so they set them on shallow dishes normally reserved for pickles or sauces, hence the term “saucers.”
Early saucers were deeper than modern saucers and shaped more like a flattened bowl. In Germany, where the Meissen company debuted the first European-made porcelain, grasping a teabowl filled with boiling-hot water wasn’t very popular, and though it was viewed as uncouth, many preferred to sip their tea from a saucer instead.
In response to this problem, Meissen began adding handles to its bowls resembling those on its taller coffee cups, thus transforming them into teacups. Chinese manufacturers copied the Meissen designs and began offering teacups and saucers by the mid-18th century.
Since the 1740s, a full set of tea wares—known as a tea service—has typically included 12 matching teacups and saucers, 12 coffee cups, a milk jug, a slop bowl, a lidded sugar bowl or “sucrier,” and a teapot. Most early teacups and saucers were decorated with traditional Chinese imagery, landscapes, or bright floral patterns. Though the handled teacup soon spread throughout Europe, in England, it was still popular to drink tea from bowls well into the 19th century.
In 1833, the East India Company finally lost its monopoly on importing tea to Western Europe, and the commodity’s price plummeted, making it accessible to far more potential customers and resulting in a boom in porcelain tea products. After around 1850, most companies added a slightly sunken well to their saucers so that teacups wouldn’t slide around and spill.
During the Victorian Era, some manufacturers produced so-called moustache cups, which contained a small ceramic bridge along one interior edge of the cup to prevent the beverage from soiling a man’s facial hair. Double-handled cups or “caudle” cups were typically used for serving hot chocolate. A less-practical design was the half-sized “demitasse” cup, which gained popularity in France as a vessel for stronger drinks like Turkish coffee or espresso, but was primarily used for ostentatious display.
Instead of acquiring complete tea services, collectors often look for individual cups or groupings known as a trio, which includes a teacup, coffee cup, and a single saucer.