A Thing Of Beauty
Porcelain teacups might not mean much today, but in early America, “porcelain was something as luxurious and expensive and desirable as sterling silver,” said Alexandra Kirtley of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Porcelain looked, felt, and even sounded different from more affordable, heavy earthenware pottery.
Beginning around 1500, porcelain art and tableware was produced almost solely in China. It was considered an exotic and sought-after commodity in the West, but one that could not be easily replicated. Despite the difficulty in recreating it, interest in producing porcelain was strong and in 1717 a French Jesuit missionary residing in China published several letters containing details on the manufacturing techniques used to make porcelain.
By the 18th century, European producers could finally create and distribute their own porcelain products, but imported porcelain was still a luxury commodity associated with the Far East. In fact, it was referred to as ‘china’ in many English-speaking nations.
Although porcelain looked delicate, it was actually much stronger and harder to break. A lot of the dishes we use today are made from porcelain, even if they’re not as fragile as those from the 1700s. Tap your coffee mug with a fingernail or a spoon – if it’s made of porcelain, you should still hear a resonant ‘ping.’
As BackStory host Peter Onuf noted, the qualities of porcelain also appealed to Americans because of the emphasis that Enlightenment-era thought placed on “sensation.” This focus on the ‘sensorium’ – experiencing and evaluating the world through multiple senses – meant that sitting down to drink your morning tea from a porcelain cup was a sought-after experience. Or, “the enlightenment in a tea cup,” as Onuf said. With so much buzz about porcelain, colonial Americans wanted to try their hand at making their own, rather than importing it from Britain.
Many British colonies were founded with the intent that they would funnel raw materials back to Britain while simultaneously providing markets for British manufactured goods. So when some colonists began manufacturing their own luxury goods, many British sellers cut their prices to keep up demand for foreign imports.
In 1770, and with the help of the American Philosophical Society, one of the first porcelain works, The American China Manufactory, opened in Philadelphia. For many colonists, the ability to produce porcelain acted as a form of cultural economic resistance. The awareness that they could independently produce luxury goods, like tea cups, bolstered their confidence about the future of an American economy.
So, the next time you’re enjoying a hot cup of tea (or even coffee), try to enjoy it as an “Enlightened” colonial American did: with all your senses. And if it happens to be in a porcelain cup, even better.
Learn more about the history of American manufacturing by listening to BackStory’s episode, “A History of Manufacturing in 5 Objects.”
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist