Upside Down Teacups?: Explanation Time

Where did tea come from? Why did turning teacups over become a thing?

The origins of the title of this blog should probably be explained (as promised). Also, what does it have to do with history? Well, it all has to do with drinking tea in the 1700’s. Don’t forget your teaspoon!

It was only polite for a host or hostess to have something to offer a guest in their home. It was a sense of pride to show that you were able to afford the amenities required for a proper tea service and, in turn, guests were required to reciprocate with the correct manners and conversation. It wasn’t just that they were drinking the tea and eating whatever cake or other delicious treats provided to go with it, but also the social customs surrounding it.

If a guest visiting a home in the 1700’s did not know the correct etiquette when drinking tea, they may have been stuck drinking nonstop. That is, if they didn’t know how to politely refuse more. This actually happened on occasion. But wait, let’s back up and go a little bit farther down the rabbit hole. Where did tea come from and how did it get to be the drink of choice at this time?

Tea became popular in Europe in in early 1600’s with traders going farther and farther out into the world, coming back with exotic goods. They brought tea back from Asia at nearly the same time that chocolate and coffee also appeared in trade from their respective homes. All three of these were available in New England coffee houses by the 1690’s. At first tea was believed to simply be a medicinal drink but eventually it became all that was fashionable. This was somewhat due to it being exotic and rare and thus expensive and hard to come by. So being able to afford to drink tea was a symbol of status, as tea along with the accoutrements required for the tea table was the most expensive among the three drinks.

Tray of chocolate… though probably not what it would have looked like in the 1600’s. 😊

Tea eventually eclipsed chocolate and coffee as the social drink of choice, though it was rather too expensive for some. This was especially true after the duty taxes were raised on it in 1767, with the Townshend Revenue Act, among other things that were imported into the colonies such as glass, paint and paper. This act was mostly repealed in 1770, all except for tea in order to maintain a “right” to tax in the colonies. In May of 1773 came the Tea Act which gave a monopoly on tea to the in debt East India Company. They were the only people technically allowed to sell tea to the American colonies. This did not go over well with everyone. However, while many chose to boycott tea in favor of their other offerings (Boston Tea Party, anyone?), some could not let go of the tea service and their tea table. This was how they greeted guests and friends, and also an important daily family ritual for many.

Learning the proper tea service had become important enough that it was soon part of the early education for young people, especially young ladies. (Anyone who read the American Girl books as a child may remember Felicity learning this very thing.) Young children would practice on each other and have tea parties like their parents. However, the same rules were not learned universally. Remember I mentioned a teaspoon earlier?

Any foreign visitors understood that accepting tea and food from a host was a courtesy. Though this was difficult to accomplish both at the same time for those who had not been taught from an early age. There was also the issue of what to do when you were done drinking your tea. On one occasion, a prince visiting Philadelphia had to be told what to do by a French ambassador after his twelfth cup of tea. “He said to me it is almost as ill-bred to refuse a cup of tea when it is offered to you, as it would [be] indiscreet for the mistress of the house to propose a fresh one, when the ceremony of the spoon has notified her that we no longer wish to partake of it.” (Tea Drinking in 18th Century America) After a cup was turned over and the teaspoon placed on top, the signal was given that the guest needed no more tea.

A drawn image of what the teacup and spoon may have looked like when the guest was finished drinking tea.

And so, while various kinds of tea are still drunk in most, if not all countries around the world, the social reasons behind turning a teacup upside down and putting a teaspoon on top have basically disappeared. Now, if you were drinking anything with friends and were asked if you wanted more, you simply would reply yes or no. No ceremony required.

Photo by Pixabay on


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