My mother had a teapot collection back in the days when I was a tea drinker but wasn’t as interested in collecting or learning about porcelain. For the last 20 years of my life, I’ve been actively preparing and drinking tea daily, antiquing, and learning about teacups and teapots.
I’m one of those people who is very curious about everything and always looking for better solutions to problems. So as I began making a pot of tea every morning, one of my problems was how to keep my tea hot so I could enjoy another cup. I started using tea cozies, which are not that easy to find.
I also started experimenting with all the different teapots and mugs in my collection to see which ones retained the heat the best. I used the traditional Brown Betty which many think is the best. Then the Chatsford clay teapot with the infuser came out. We loved that one because of the fine basket to steep loose leaf tea. Then while in England, I found the bone china Chatsford teapots and brought one home. This was when I discovered that bone china was extra special.
We always preheat our teapots and mugs with hot or boiling water before preparing the tea by pouring a little water in the vessel and after swishing it around poured it out. Through all of our experiments with different clay, porcelain, and bone china teapots, the bone china was the winner by a very significant margin. Do your own experimenting at home.
It was when I visited the Spode factory in England and took their Connoisseur’s Tour that I learned the difference between bone china and other ceramics. (I just learned that Portmeirion Potteries has purchased Spode in England, so I am pleased that I had the opportunity to go behind the scenes to see how everything was created. I highly recommend going behind the scenes, if you ever visit a china factory.)
Ceramic is a word derived from the ancient Greek “keramos” meaning roughly “of fired clay.” The word china usually refers to porcelain, first developed in China during the 9th century mixing kaolin and feldspar together at high temperatures creating a hard white ceramic, pale and translucent, higher quality.
At the end of the 18th century, Josiah Spode tried to replicate the Chinese secret formula and discovered “bone china.” In their experimentation, they added the ash of calf leg bones, resulting in china that is translucent and durable, and retains heat better than anything else. Most people don’t realize how strong bone china teaware is. They are the work horses of serious tea drinkers.
Most ceramics are made with hardened clay like we used to play with in grammar school, while bone china is heated to become a rigid liquid state, so every teapot and teacup is poured into a mold. After the first firing, the mold is removed and examined before proceding to the next step—a very labor intensive process.
Sadly, most of the English potteries have been closed down or have moved their productions to Asia, so the fine workmanship and special English clay pots are becoming nonexistent. The quality of the Asian produced porcelain has suffered in my estimation—the engineering of the pot, weight, non-dripping spout, etc. There is production of bone china now in Asia. I’m just not sure about the quality compared to that produced in England and Germany. I recently purchased a tea mug labed “new bone china.” I’m not sure what that is either. Last year I visited a quaint teashop in Germany with hundreds of teapots. I only found one teapot in the store that had been made in Germany.
If a piece of porcelain is bone china, it will be labeled “bone china” on the bottom. During this down economy and a time when everyone is pushing for “green” products, I’m searching for the wonderful bone china teacups, teapots, and mugs from the past—the greenest teaware in the world. These are secret treasures that everyone seems to be blinded to.
PS As I was searching for bone china teapots for my photo, I discovered that many of my antique ones are transferware which is a subject I’ll talk about in another blog.