Bygone Treasures: A Nice Cuppa Tea

By Michael Rice

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There’s much to be said for a comfy chair, a good book, a warm fire, a cat on the lap and a great cuppa tea.

From its long ago status as the elixir of the wealthy to its present role as a healthful beverage, tea is truly a relaxing delight.

While valuing old items recently for a church group, I saw two marvellous old teapots, one shaped like a camel and the other like an elephant. These made me think of other teatime things many folks own, some used every day, and others buried at the back of china cupboards awaiting rediscovery and a visit from the duster.

The proper tea ritual involves a caddy, a teapot, a creamer, a sugar bowl, cups and saucers and spoons. The list can include a water bowl, sugar tongs and a strainer, all intended to help us make the experience of tea drinking more pleasurable.

In the late 1700s, teapots became more available as tea itself dropped in price. In this period, many firms produced pottery and earthenware teapots; an example of one that’s still around now is Wedgwood. A seven-inch-high [18 cm] black basalt Wedgwood teapot with white flowers embossed on it would cost you $700 in a shop today.

As years passed, styles and composition changed and manufacturers that are more familiar debuted, such as Limoges and Royal Doulton, who became famous for figural designs. Teapots shaped like characters from Dickens, made by Doulton, now book in some cases at $2,000 apiece. Other company names that are highly sought after include Hull Pottery, Shawnee, Rookwood and Quimper. Generally, the more unusual the design and the more decorative the teapot appears, the more it appeals to the modern collector. Condition is very important, and hairline cracks, nicks and bits missing have a serious effect on values.

While I have an aversion to tea brewed in metal pots, many collectible silver and silver plate pots are valuable. Look for sterling hallmarks to help you date your teapot and to confirm that it’s silver.

There were full tea services made to commemorate British Coronations and Jubilees, although most of us settled for a mug or a cup, or whatever we may have been given in school to celebrate the event. A popular collectible in the tea category is the caddy spoon, instantly recognizable for its wide flat bowl. Here in B.C., Nabob Foods made one in brass with the image of a turbaned East Indian gentleman on the handle. One of these would now cost $20 to replace, if it were chucked out by accident.

Tea tins are another huge part of the collectibles world. Hundreds of these sell online every month and, as one example, a Mazawattee tin displaying Dick Whittington dating from 1905 just brought $450 at auction. The variety of designs is limited only by the imagination with desirable themes including Arabian markets, geishas, steamships and military leaders of the First World War.

While most teaspoons have little to do with tea, some were produced by tea companies who placed advertising or logos in the bowls or on the handles. These are worth sorting out from that pile you’ve picked up as tourist souvenirs on your travels.

If your parents drank tea, it’s possible you played with a children’s tea set when you were young. Though many pieces may have become damaged or lost, even single items may represent an exciting find. Peter Rabbit, Mickey Mouse and more recently, the Brambly Hedge mice have all appeared on sets.

Arguably, the most frequently encountered things to dispose of when downsizing or clearing an estate are teacups. If they’re damaged, no matter how well you’ve glued the bits back together, they’re not what collectors want, and they’re not safe to use. When cups are offered at garage sales, owners tend to overprice common designs like Old Country Roses and undervalue early Belleek examples. Some Belleek cups such as an early lily design with the correct black maker’s mark can run into hundreds of dollars. As with anything, take some time and get some knowledgeable help before you put on the price stickers.

Do I drink tea? Absolutely! My personal favourite is strong black organic tea from the Aislaby plantation in Sri Lanka, which I get from a lovely little shop in Sidney. Unlimited varieties of teas and blends, herbal teas and fruit infusions will cause you to abandon the commercial tea bag forever. Extend your pinkie and enjoy!

Comments and suggestions for future columns are welcome and may be sent to




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