Teapoys:   Their Regency Evolution

Despite the fact that the Regency lasted less than ten years, there were some unique objects developed during the space of that decade. Sadly, like the harp-lute and the toy panorama, the teapoy is now almost completely lost to history. Today, very few people are even aware of the existence of this very useful piece of furniture. Yet, during the Regency and well into the Victorian era, few ladies in the best households would have ever considered hosting a tea party without a teapoy by their side.

How smouch forced the teapoy out of the garden and into the drawing room . . .

The teapoy originated during the last half of the eighteenth century as a small portable table for holding an individual tea cup and saucer. Their general form was a small octagonal or circular top not much larger than a dinner plate, supported by a central pillar on three splayed feet. According to the Oxford English Dictionary online, it was those three feet which gave this small table its name. Ti-n, from Hindi, meaning "three" and pae, from Persian, meaning "foot." However, the Hindi syllable was corrupted to "tea" since these small tables were used only for serving that very expensive beverage, and only during garden tea parties. The name of these small tables was just as often spelled "tepoy" during the eighteenth century, though by the turn of the nineteenth century the spelling "teapoy" was the most common.

The first teapoys were rather like modern-day TV tables, brought out for guests when needed, otherwise they were stored away out of sight. But these small tables were for use by only the very wealthiest of the upper classes in England. Tea was still an expensive luxury item in the latter decades of the eighteenth century, to be enjoyed on special occasions by only the most affluent and fashionable people. During the summer months, when the aristocracy retreated from London to their country estates, it had become all the rage to serve afternoon tea in one of the elegant garden follies which dotted their parks. A number of these garden follies had been constructed with a raised platform, or with a second floor, which offered extensive views of the grounds which could be enjoyed while sipping tea. But that was only the last act of this extended bucolic play. Before the tea could be made, the leaves had to be blended, and at many estates, the prettiest girls among the female staff would be dressed in costumes, such as dairy-maids, shepherdesses, or, in at least one case, in "Jesuit Uniforms of White Lutestring with Blue Ribbons . . ." to amuse the guests. Once the loose tea leaves had been blended by these pretty young "blenders," often under the direction of the lady of the house, the tea was steeped, strained and poured into tea cups nestled in saucers. Oftentimes the same young women who had blended the tea leaves would hand around the tea cups and saucers, placing them on a teapoy which had been set next to the chair of each guest. Milk, sugar and lemon would be passed around, as would a selection of pastries and cakes. As soon as the last guest had been served, the servants would melt away and the guests were then free to gossip amongst themselves while they sipped their tea and enjoyed the lovely view before them.

Such garden tea parties were also fashionable in London, but only at the best houses. Garden tea parties in town tended to be less flamboyant than those held in the country. There were no pretty costumed blenders mixing the tea leaves prior to the making of the tea. Typically, in the usually smaller space of a London garden house, the tea was blended by the lady of the house, who also made the tea, and poured it into the tea cups. But there were servants on hand to deliver the cups and saucers, the milk and sugar and the pastries to the teapoys which would have been set up near each guest. As in the country, the servants would withdraw and the tea party guests were free to converse on any subject, with no fear of eavesdropping servants. Though most late eighteenth-century London garden tea parties were more restrained than those held at the country estates of the aristocracy, records suggest that a few of the larger London town houses had a quite a grand venue for the tea parties held in the garden. The garden house was elevated on a set of stone pillars which provided a grand view of the city. In these elevated garden houses elegant afternoon tea parties were hosted for very fashionable guests. From their lofty perch, free of servants once the tea was served, guests could enjoy the grand vistas while they shared a comfortable coze.

The earliest teapoys had been of very simple design and construction, of plain woods and finishes. But by the 1780s, they were being made of fine woods, such as mahogany, walnut and satinwood. The splayed legs were now slim abbreviated cabriole curves which terminated in claw feet carved in great detail. The pillar supporting the top had become more slender and delicate, many with a graceful baluster shape. The table top itself was now almost always octagonal and was usually given a richly carved edge and a highly polished surface. But their finer, fashionable appearance was not the only reason that teapoys were gradually admitted into the drawing rooms of the finest homes.

By about 1785, tea prices had begun to fall and demand was rising steadily as more people lost their suspicions of tea as a dangerous drink. Those who enjoyed drinking tea purchased their tea leaves in larger and larger quantities, thus driving the need for larger containers in which to store them. The relatively small tea cannisters and boxes which had been sufficient for this costly commodity earlier in the century gave way to the much larger tea caddy of the 1790s. Those early tea boxes were an essential part of the tea equipage of the eighteenth century. As can be seen in a number of family and "conversation" paintings of the era which depict a group of people enjoying tea and conversation, the tea box or cannister was shown placed on the carpet very near the hostess, who would have blended the leaves from it herself, prior to making the tea for her guests.

Throughout the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, all household tea containers had a lock, and in most cases, the key was held by the lady of the house. And it was only the lady, or on rare occasions, the man of the house, who blended the tea leaves just prior to the making of the tea. This was not done only to prevent the servants from gaining access to this valuable commodity. The other reason was smouch. This "smouch" was not a slang term for a kiss. It was slang, but it referred to the preparations which were added to blended teas to increase their volume prior to sale. By the end of the eighteenth century it is estimated that there were at least thirty thousand tea-grocers trading throughout Great Britain, not to mention all the china-sellers who also sold a wide range of tea leaves. Not all of them were honest tradesmen. The dishonest tea-grocers and china-sellers adulterated their blended teas with smouch to increase their supplies and thus their profits. Quite a number of country folk were able to pick up a tidy side profit each summer by making smouch for one of those dishonest tea dealers. The content of the smouch was determined by the color of the tea with which it was to be used. For black teas, such as bohea, dried ash leaves were most often used, while for green teas, dried elder buds were the preferred smouch ingredient.

Smouch was nearly impossible to detect once it had been added to a tea blended by a knowledgeable, if dishonest, tea tradesman. However, it was blatantly obvious when added to unblended tea leaves. Therefore, those among the cognoscenti of tea-drinkers made it a point to only purchase unblended teas. Unblended teas were much more expensive, but they could not be easily adulterated with smouch. It had therefore become the custom in the homes of the nobility and gentry that the lady of the house would blend the tea to be served at a tea party right in front of the guests attending that party. In that way, the guests would be assured that they would be getting an unadulterated tea, and, since the servants had no access to the precious tea leaves, pilferage was virtually eliminated. Even when the pretty costumed servant girls had blended the tea leaves for a garden tea party at a grand estate, that blending nearly always took place under the watchful eye of the lady of the house.

As the eighteenth century came to a close, tea caddies were getting larger and heavier. It was no longer convenient or even possible to carry the heavy, bulky tea caddy on the tray with the rest of the tea accoutrements as had been done in the past, when they were brought into the drawing room for a tea party. Unless she was quite the Amazon, it would have been nearly impossible for the hostess of a tea party to then gracefully place this substantial chest on the carpet at her side while she measured out the teas she was about to blend for her guests. Therefore, the more finely finished version of the teapoy was invited into the drawing room as an expedient yet stylish means by which to place the large tea caddy near the hostess for her use during the crucial blending of the tea leaves during her tea parties.

Ironically, the same elegant and beautiful finish which got the early nineteenth-century teapoys invited into the drawing room very nearly got them show out again. The table-top of a teapoy was highly-polished and therefore, quite slippery. Teapoy table-tops did not have the raised edges given to pie-crust tables or candle-stands. Therefore, the slightest bump of a teapoy might send the heavy tea caddy flying onto the floor, or even worse, onto a nearby guest or the lady of the house. Around 1810, some clever cabinet-maker came up with the idea of joining the tea caddy and the teapoy into a single unit. Thus was born the specialty furniture form of the Regency teapoy. A piece of furniture which was so elegant it could remain in the drawing room at all times and rapidly became de rigueur in all the best homes.

These new teapoys were essentially a large tea caddy firmly affixed to a sturdy but finely-finished base, usually of a pillar design. The baluster shape of the earlier teapoys was often used for those made during the Regency. However, other designs for the central support of the teapoy began to appear, including square or hexagonal posts veneered with richly-grained woods, deeply carved columns, and even a few in the shape of a lyre or other classical motif. The large tea caddy which was supported by these sophisticated bases was most often square or rectangular. It was not until after the Regency, about 1820, when the tea caddy portion of a teapoy was made in an oval or round shape. Many were finely carved, while some were veneered with beautifully-grained or exotic woods and polished to a high gloss. A few of the most elaborate were not only inlaid with ormolu, they were also given ormolu mounts and fittings. As had been the case with all forms of tea storage which had come before, the caddy portion of the teapoy was fitted with a lock, the key of which was held by the lady of the house. Though these new, modern teapoys continued to be made well into the nineteenth century, they originated on the cusp of the Regency. During that period, they were all hand-crafted, very expensive and would only have been seen in the houses of the most wealthy and fashionable people. It would have been highly unlikely to have seen a teapoy in the homes of the middle or lower classes during the Regency.

The interior of the large tea caddy of a Regency teapoy was often quite lovely. Many of the most sophisticated had an oil painting set inside the lid, often of a country view reminiscent of the bucolic vistas seen by guests at an eighteenth-century country tea party. Paintings of animals in a country landscape or a still life with flowers or fruit were also sometimes to be found inside the lid of a teapoy. Those which did not have paintings in the lid would generally have a padded and ornamented inset covered in plush or velvet, or just a panel of finely-grained veneer. Most often the interior of a Regency teapoy was fitted with four compartments with hinged velvet-covered lids. Under these lids was usually to be found loose tea boxes which, if carefully made, would slide out very smoothly, without the slightest effort. Others had plush or velvet-lined fittings in which glass or porcelain tea jars could be placed. In some pieces, these four compartments were separated down the center, either horizontally or vertically, by a velvet-lined tray which held a pair of glass bowls. In the best teapoys these bowls were of cut-glass. One bowl was usually used to hold lumps of sugar which had been nipped off the sugar loaf, while the other was for the use of the hostess when she blended the tea leaves she had selected.

Over the years, the term teapoy has been applied to a number of different furniture forms, making it something of a challenge to find images of them online. However, a most useful web site in Britain, the Antique Atlas, has devoted an entire page to the type of teapoys which originated in the Regency. Just click on any of the images to go to a page with multiple detailed photographs of that teapoy. The teapoys made before the Regency are often mistaken today for candle-stands or small ornamental tables. As a rule of thumb, early teapoys were about thirty inches in height, always had a central pillar support resting on three legs, and a table-top of about fifteen to eighteen inches in diameter. And the table-tops of early teapoys were almost always octagonal. There were a few which were circular, but they would be lacking the raised edge which would be found on most candle-stands or ornamental tripod tables.

During the Regency, teapoys were nearly ubiquitous in the homes of the upper classes, usually to be found in the drawing room, or a lady’s sitting room, often pushed against a wall until needed for the making of tea. It would be highly unlikely to see a teapoy in the home of someone of the middling classes, and would have looked very out of place should it be seen there. Though the price of tea had come down in the Regency from the exorbitant prices charged for it during the eighteenth century, it was still an expensive commodity. If the lady of the house did not hold the key to the tea storage receptacle, it was usually entrusted to her house-keeper. This was most common for those women who could not be bothered to blend the tea leaves for their tea parties and left such work to the servants, despite the risk of pilferage. Or, such women may not have known or cared enough about tea to bother blending their own, and probably had pre-blended tea purchased for their households. Pre-blended tea which had a good chance of being adulterated with smouch. Such hostesses might become known for serving inferior tea, which could very well blight their social reputation. At the very least, they would be considered ignorant and lacking in taste when it came to fine tea.

Now that you know about Regency teapoys, Dear Regency Authors, will one of them find a place in an upcoming novel? Perhaps a demanding dowager who believes she is a great connoisseur of tea carts her personal teapoy about with her when she travels, requiring that it always be placed in the room she is allotted at any inn along her journey. She also demands that it be placed in her bedchamber wherever she happens to be a house guest. Perhaps she keeps the key on a chain around her neck or some other location she believes to be inviolable. Or, maybe a woman with a sophisticated taste for tea has married into a family who is unable to tell bohea from smouch. Might she keep a teapoy in her sitting room, filled with high-quality, unblended teas from which she can prepare a superior cup of tea for those of her guests who have equally good taste? And then, there is the fact that this is a locked box on a stand, fitted with a number of compartments. What secret missives or small items night be hidden inside a teapoy? And how is access to the key and thus the contents of the teapoy to be accomplished? Would a doting wife or mother hide something in her teapoy to protect a son or husband? For additional security, a teapoy could be made with a false bottom. In which case, what might be hidden there, and by whom? So many possibilities! Perhaps a cup of tea is in order while one ponders them?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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6 Responses to Teapoys:   Their Regency Evolution

  1. Now I fancy a cuppa!
    I know enough to know that black tea eventually predominated for the simple reason that it kept its flavour longer than green tea, which rapidly became insipid and actually rather unpleasant, not having the advantage we have of foil packaging. What beautiful pieces of furniture! I’ve seen one similar to the one with the lute shaped decoration on the stand which had obviously been stripped of its accoutrements as it was used to store music in…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Never been a big fan of green tea myself, I have always preferred black tea.

      I can see where a piece of furniture with a lyre shaped base would seem to be a logical choice for the storage of music. But it does seem too bad that the teapoy had to be stripped to make it work. Then again, at least it survived.

      =^..^=

  2. I love the idea of the demanding dowager carting her personal teapoy everyway. It’s so tempting to use it as a comical aspect: Some teapoys look so fragile I can not help seeing somebody stumbling into one and knocking it over (the hero, who desperately tries to make a perfect impression on the dowager to win her content to marry her lovely granddaughter?).
    The dowager’s teapoy might also catch the attention of an overzealous member of the authorities assigned to investigate spying and information leaking to France. As the dowager keeps a jealous eye of the teapoy and its content under lock and key, he is soon convinced that she and her pretty granddaughter are helping a group of emigrées to gather information for Napoleon. Time for the hero to step in…

  3. Pingback: History A'la Carte 10-23-14 - Random Bits of Fascination

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