Tuesday, January 3, 2012
92. Early Victorian Tea Set (England, 1840-1845)
I think this is MacGregor’s last extremely British object. (Coming to the end of his series, now, I repeat I’m a little peeved that although he’s been all over the world and all through time, he doesn’t really have any objects from the two countries in which I’ve lived: Michigan and Cascadia (the Pacific Northwest). His buckskin map came close to Michigan (and it’s true, apart from inventing cars the only thing of world-historical significance that ever happened there was the French & Indian War), and they do have cool Pacific Northwest totems and masks in the British Museum; but somehow those didn’t make it onto his list.) In any event, what could be more British than tea? Yet that statement sounds more simple than it really is: nothing could be more industrializing-British-empire than tea, true. But as we’ve seen in the Mold Gold Cape or the Vale of York Horde, there’s much more to Britain than its 19th century empire.
The empire brings the world to Britain in a big way, and you can explore it in the tea set. You’re drinking tea, which was domesticated in China originally, although to punish China for fighting the Opium Wars with Britain they moved much of the tea production to India during the nineteenth century. You’ve probably added sugar, which was grown in the West Indies by African slaves, and like the tea brought to England on great clipper ships. And some people take it with milk; cows haven’t changed much since ancient Egypt, but it was a big deal, in the 19th century, to invent railroads so the cows could stay out in the country and every day the milk could be dragged into the cities. And you’re drinking it out of British-made porcelain, which as we saw earlier was a Chinese innovation that developed when Genghis Khan dashed along the Silk Road and brought Iran in touch with China. In this case, it’s Wedgwood, which started as a porcelain-maker for the elite; but the nineteenth century sees the rise of mass everything, so this set was affordable and mass-produced, still with an upwardly mobile trend, but for the common man. This simple, insignificant British ritual—the ubiquitous ‘nice cup of tea’ is in fact the essence of history; everything in our series so far has been leading to this drink.
Now, of local relevance to the rise of tea, socially, in England in the nineteenth century is the fact that tea has a major advantage over beer and wine as a national drink: it peps people up, rather than slows them down, promotes hard-working docility over boisterous roistering. Both were safer than water, back in the days when no country could organize clean drinking water, but there was a big nineteenth-century crusade, part of temperance and other such annoying causes, to get the common man drinking tea. It worked so well, of course, many of us still enjoy our daily cuppa. As a Seattleite I’m a coffee man, myself, but whenever I go to England I drink tea like a fiend and then come home and drink it for weeks until coffee takes back over. We love caffeine here—keeps us from turning into moss-covered Pacific Northwest totem poles. When that finally happens, you can put me in the British museum.