Teapots are decorative containers, commonly made from pottery or silver, for steeping and serving hot tea. In contrast to kettles, teapots don’t need to endure direct contact with an open flame, thus can be crafted from delicately glazed porcelain and china.
The earliest teapots were produced in China, where tea drinking dates back more than a thousand years. However, teapots were unnecessary for several centuries, as the drink was produced by roasting tea leaves, grinding them, and forming a small brick that could be boiled with other ingredients to make a hot soup. During the Sung Dynasty, or around 1000 A.D., tea leaves were first made into a fine powder that was mixed with hot water and drunk from a bowl.
Tea-drinking customs had shifted by around 1500, when the first true teapots emerged. Scholars speculate that the earliest tea pots were modeled after taller ewers used for serving wine. The first recognizable vessels are known as Yixing teapots, made from the purple clay of the Jiangsu province, which produces colors ranging from a light buff to a deep brown when fired. This hardened clay is also porous, allowing these pots to absorb the tea’s natural oils, enhancing flavor with regular use.
The hot beverage quickly caught on in nearby Japan, where artisans crafted rough earthenware teapots known as kyusu. Those designed with curved handles at the back are called ushirode, while pots with a single knob-like handle on the side are referred to as yokode.
By the late 17th century, when the East India Company began shipping tea to Great Britain, Chinese potters had developed a sturdy, thin-walled porcelain for tea wares. The finest teapots were embellished with inlaid metals and painted designs, often featuring natural elements and outdoor scenes. Since fine underglaze-decorated porcelain wouldn’t be damaged by seawater if stored in the lower hold of its ships, the East India Company began shipping porcelain tea sets to Europe along with bulk tea.
Many teapots were sold in sets with matching cups, saucers, and sugar bowls known as a tea “equipage.” These were often decorated in popular color schemes like the common “blue and white,” “famille verte” (green family), or “famille rose” (red family). Unlike those used in China, teapots produced for the East India Company’s European market often incorporated an integrated sieve or strainer at the base of the teapot’s spout to prevent tea leaves from pouring into a cup when being served.
Although Europe’s earthenware potteries had begun producing teapots, they lacked the durability and elegance of true china. In the early 18th century, at Meissen in Saxony (now p...
Meissen soon became the source of Europe’s most desirable pottery, producing a wide range of porcelain teapots by the 1710s. Many of these vessels were decorated by independent artisans, or so-called “hausmalers,” who typically painted them with exotic Asiatic scenes imitating popular Chinese and Japanese imagery.
During the 1700s, most teapots were very small in size—mostly because tea was still an expensive luxury item—and globular or barrel-shaped, though oval and cylindrical forms gained popularity toward the end of the century. By this time, teapot fans like the French painter François Boucher had already begun building unique collections to showcase the variety of styles and materials.
Meissen recognized the collectible market and crafted several decorative teapots with limited functionality that were specifically aimed at wealthy collectors, like its seated-monkey design from around 1740. The company’s products were quickly copied in soft-paste ceramics by British potters like Bow, Chelsea, Derby, and Longton Hall. Some of these businesses even warned their customers against making tea in them because they were likely to crack when heated too quickly. Those made by Royal Worcester were the exception, as the company’s recipe included an ingredient known as soapstone, which made its products much more durable.
What we know as the modern tea service—teapot, hot water pot, sugar bowl, and milk pitcher—was firmly established in Europe during the 19th century. Although the invention of the individual teabag in the early 20th century caused teapots to become mostly obsolete, their appeal lingered, and major potteries like Rosenthal, Sèvres, Hall, and Wedgwood continued to sell them.
Twentieth-century teapots were typically produced in traditional styles, though mainstream aesthetic trends also affected the genre. During the 1920s and '30s, “eggshell” porcelain teapots made by Japanese companies like Noritake boomed in popularity in Europe and the United States. Others followed the tenets of the Art Deco movement in crafting octagonal, hexagonal, and cube-shaped teapots, while some potteries churned out novelty teapots in the shapes of automobiles, animals, and cartoon characters. Today, collectors especially prize late 19th century transferware and glazed designs from famous makers of Staffordshire pottery, as well as the iconic Fiestaware teapots of the 1930s.