Tea was imported from China to England by the East India Company, and by 1729, tea was the most fashionable refreshment in the land. It was first drunk for its supposed medicinal properties and became a symbol of luxury and status as until 1784, it was subject to heavy taxation making it an expensive commodity.
The presentation of such a luxury item was important and soon tables specifically designed for supporting the cups, saucers and kettles required for drinking tea and coffee were introduced.
A Tea Party, by Joseph Van Aken, around 1720 – Manchester City Galleries
Although it was initially fashionable to drink tea in the many tea gardens around London, by the mid-18th century such establishments had become increasingly poorly regarded and it became customary to entertain at home. This inevitably led to the production of lavishly carved ornamental tea tables in the Rococo taste and even to the construction of special tearooms often appropriately decorated in the chinoiserie taste.
As tea was imported to Europe from the Far East, the use of tea tables was also introduced in the European colonies like India. Pattern books were brought from Europe and local craftsmen were commissioned to copy the European style furnishings in local exotic woods such as teakwood, mahogany and rosewood. Fortunately many of these beautiful tea tables have survived and are now highly collectible. Not only are they charming and attractive to look at, they are also versatile and practical.
A pretty table set for tea
Tea tables come in many styles and sizes. A tilt-top, tripod table is a popular form of tea table because of its folding top, which enables it to be conveniently put away when not in use. It is invariably fitted with either a bird cage support or tilt top mechanism. During the early days, tea and coffee were usually served from a silver tray or salver, the tripod table itself being initially conceived as a plain stand. The earliest tripod tables have therefore a plain circular tilt top above baluster or vase shaped shafts supported by cabriole legs with pointed pad feet.
From the 1750’s tripod tables referred to as claw tables became increasingly elaborate with acanthus and C-scrolled carved knees, spiral turned shafts and ball and claw feet.
Antique Pie-Crust Tilt-Top Tripod Table
Credit: Thakeham Furniture
The small nests of three or four tables that fit one under the other are another popular tea-table design. It is very convenient since every guest can thus be accommodated with a corner on which to place her cup and saucer.
A small nest of tables with claw feet.
Sheraton Tables have a distinctive design. Credit: Regent Antiques
Of quite a different type are the two-tier Sheraton tables. These are found in either mahogany or satinwood and have the effect of two oval trays one over the other. A loose tray of plate glass is made to fit the top, and the tea items are brought in on this and set on top. These tables are rather high but some people prefer this and the lower tray makes a very convenient receptacle for plates and cakes.
Tea was a luxury item kept in a Tea-Poy. Credit: Thakeham Furniture and Windsor House Antiques
The tea-poy is a relic of the days when tea was a valuable commodity and important enough to be stored in a special decorative container. It resembled a workbox on legs, and was fitted with bowls for sugar, jars for tea and often teaspoons and sugar tongs.