While looking for teaware online, I came across the Tèo, a steel spoon from the Italian brand Alessi. Inspired by the curling tea leaf, its design ensures you can pull the tea bag through a tunnel of sorts, squeezing out any excess tea—if you don’t like wet and wrung tea bags, you will appreciate it.
Though its steep price means it hasn’t risen in the popularity charts, it did get me thinking about the teaspoon and its journey. When I think of the teaspoon, it’s as a measure of something. It’s a small spoon, maybe something to stir in sugar. But was it created for tea?
To my surprise, the first recorded use of the “teaspoon” appears to be in the context of the theft of silver spoons (1686, a 15-year old slave in England reportedly sold “three small gilt teaspoons”). That may not be surprising, though, since tea was expensive until the East India Company’s tea plantations made it a mass commodity.
It was the Dutch who first took tea to Europe. High taxation made it such a luxurious item that teacups were traditionally smaller than coffee cups. Tea caddies to store it came with a lock. Caddy spoons were introduced in the 18th century for a careful measure. The smaller spoon, likely meant to stir sugar into tea, was probably also silver. The name “teaspoon” seems to have slipped in somewhere in that story of precious tea and valuable silver spoons prone to theft.
Eventually, it acquired a standard measure: 1 teaspoon is 5ml (very nearly) and equals about 2.5g, pretty much the recommended amount of tea per cup. As tea became more ubiquitous, less expensive, the caddy spoon went out of circulation and the teaspoon as we know it today became part of our lives.
Another piece of teaware that has its origins in Europe is the cup with the handle. In China, tea was drunk from tea bowls, saucer-like and handle-less. Eastern cultures seem to have preferred the cup handle-less, whether it’s our own kulhad, the Japanese yunomi or the Chinese cups and gaiwan.
It took nearly 100 years for potters in Europe to arrive at the chemistry of porcelain, which is credited to German alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger (like most invention stories, this one too is, let’s just say, complicated). Once they understood porcelain, the Europeans started experimenting with form and design. The tea bowl’s walls grew narrower and a little handle was attached to the cup to prevent scalding. The credit for the handle and the elaborate English tea service, with its milk jugs and sugar bowls, goes to Englishman Robert Adams. The saucer, once used to cool tea, shrank in size, becoming merely a holder for the cup.
Jingdezhen in China remains the world’s porcelain capital, along with Meissen, Germany, where Europe’s first (still operational) porcelain factory came up, and Stoke-on-Trent in England, home to Wedgwood, which set up shop in 1759.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.