Editor’s note: this is the first of five posts by graduate students in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture (WPAMC), written as part of their Material Life in America class. Immediately upon beginning coursework last summer, each student selected an object from a list of possibilities, researched it, and wrote several papers on it. These posts share some of their findings and excitement.
As a graduate student in the WPAMC Program, I started classes in July of last year. I was immediately confronted with this object: a miniature teacup. I was told I would study it for the next several months, and I wondered what could be so special about it that it deserved in-depth study. Now, having completed my first semester, I get it! In this program—and the discipline of material culture—when we look at objects, we are asked to investigate various mysteries: what it is made of, and how was it made? When was it created and used? How much did it cost? Why does it look that way? What does it mean? My favorite discovery after spending months with this object has to do with its meaning.
If you held this teacup in your hand, one of the first things you might notice about it is that it’s small. A bit of research revealed that while British manufacturers (this was made in Staffordshire, England, probably between 1830 and 1850) sometimes made miniature tea sets for other reasons, they were mainly made for children. What does it mean that children in the 19th century had tea sets to play with?
This question reminded me of my own experiences as a child. I spent a great deal of time playing with my sisters. Given endless hours, we participated in unstructured, creative (and silly!) games. One game, though, differed from the rest. In “tea party,” we used a miniature porcelain tea set, decorated with bright green, pink, and blue enamels and gilded at the edges. The four of us would sit around a little table with our refreshments and be perfectly quiet and reserved. Why did the rules of “tea party” include being so quiet? Were our parents using the tea party game to turn us into polite little ladies?
Drinking tea in small groups as a social activity was important in expressing gentility and refinement in the 19th century. I found evidence that toy tea sets were used to teach girls the ritual of brewing and serving tea to guests. The American Girl’s Home Book of Work and Play, an 1883 text I looked at in the Rare Book Room at the Winterthur Library, discusses “Make-Believe Housekeeping” and concludes, “The transition is an easy one from the make-believe to the real, and a child who has this training will never feel the terror of housekeeping that fills many a girl before marriage.” Similarly, an article in the July 1866 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book called “Domestic Education” indicates that competency in the tea ritual was an important part of a young woman’s maturing:
The next great step is in allowing little miss to make the tea, which is a very great promotion indeed, and ere many years go by she presides at the tea and breakfast table with a perfect sense of what is required of her; and to the great relief of mamma, who knows that if she goes out to tea she leaves some one behind who is quite capable of conducting things satisfactorily in her absence.
Clearly, managing a tea service was an important aspect of a young girl’s education, and toys like this teacup were important in gaining this skill.
However, I found evidence suggesting these objects were also used purely for play! Take a look at this illustration from The Three Good Friends: Carrie, Lily and Floss, an 1882 children’s book. Notice that on the dressing table sits a tiny cup and saucer; on the floor a few feet away from the girls sit another cup and saucer, a cream pitcher, and a stray lid from some part of the tea set. This evidence shows that tea sets were used for purposes other than to enact a formal tea ceremony; while the illustration doesn’t show exactly how the girls were interacting with the tea set, the scattering of the objects through the room shows that they were playing informally.
Was it just young girls that played with these tea sets? None of the literature or period documents argue that it was important for boys to learn this social ritual–but boys played with the tea sets anyway! I found proof in two period newspapers. A story called “Don’t Break It, Jose,” which appeared in the Baltimore Patriot in 1830, includes a mother trying to distract her unruly son with a “little tea set.” An 1865 newspaper indicates that a little boy played with his sister’s miniature tea set at his birthday supper. Obviously, girls played with these tea sets in ways that adults did not intend, and boys played with them too.
I’m glad you’ve joined me on this exploration on the meaning of a little teacup, which revealed that while miniature tea sets were used to teach girls the formal tea ritual, children also played with them informally. As material culture scholars, we try to do the messy work of sorting out the various meanings objects often embody. It’s easy to look at things and figure out what they were supposed to be used for—it’s sometimes harder to remember that people in the past used things playfully, and harder still to prove those out-of-the-box uses. As you explore Winterthur’s Galleries, take a tour through the house, or conduct your own research in the library, try and remember the playful side of historical life!