Tea arrived in Europe from China in the early 1600s. Despite its association with the aristocracy, tea actually began as a drink of sailorsâ€”in fact, it was considered a lower-class beverage throughout much of the 17th century. But all that changed in the late 1600s when England became infatuated with tea.
Although the English enjoyed their tea, they found it less than palatable to drink it in the traditional Chinese way, in which tea was brewed and subsequently sipped from the same cup. Swallowing floating tea leaves was deemed distasteful, so English artisans turned to the designs of porcelain vessels used to serve hot Chinese rice wines. These squat, low containers quickly evolved into teapots, with strainers in their spouts to keep tea leaves from spilling into cups.
English and French silversmiths began making silver tea services in the early 1700s. These were considered an upscale improvement on ceramic tea sets. Silver tea services generally included a teapot, a matching coffee pot, a sugar dish, a creamer, a waste bowl for used tea, and a matching tray. While not necessarily considered part of the tea service, teaspoons, sugar spoons, and sugar tongs often accompanied these sets.
Some of the most elaborate tea services were produced during the Victorian era. Silversmiths such as Dixon and Sons, Broadhead and Atkin, and Bradbury & Co. were famous for their tea services, and they brought their best to the Great Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. Many of the dominant patterns of the time were neoclassical in style, copying formal Greek and Roman designs. At the other end of the spectrum were tea services in the rococo style, which featured intricate vines, branches, and other patterns taken from nature.
Toward the end of the 19th century, design preferences shifted again as silver tea services became much more simplified and streamlined, putting them years ahead of the overall aesthetics of the time. Dixon and Sons was at the forefront of this movement in England. In America, Reed & Barton and Rogers Bros. were the leaders, adhering to formal, neoclassical treatments.
By the early 20th century, the look of silver tea services varied greatly from region to region. Some European designers stuck to the rococo designs that had been popular during the Victorian era, but across the Atlantic in America, the Arts and Crafts movement was in full swing. Silversmiths at the Kalo Shop (1900 to 1970) produced a range of designsâ€”from "bean pot" teapots with ivory insulators on the handles to taller, fluted services with handsomely notched spouts. A short-lived offshoot of Kalo, the TC Shop (1910 to 1928), also in Chicago, produced hand-hammered tea services, whose forms were spare and geometric.
In New York, Scandinavians like Peer Smed made tall and elegant tea services, their weight often being of a point of value for contemporary collectors. Some were custom stamped or engraved with their ownerâ€™s initials or seals, and many were decorated with Art and Crafts-style vines, flowers, and bands.