Ethel, is it true you have more than one hundred fine china teacups and saucers?”
She laughs because the idea is absurd. And it is true. And it—not just the idea, but the actual fact—makes her happy. Ethel Piercy loves drinking tea from a teacup.
North Americans have been drinking tea since the early explorers brought it back to Europe, and then to our continent, from China and India. Of the three hot drinks (cocoa, coffee and tea), cocoa was the first to be introduced into Europe in 1528 by the Spanish, then the Dutch brought tea to Europe in 1610. It wasn’t until 1662, when English monarch Charles II married Catherine of Braganza of Portugal, a princess who devoted to tea, that tea became the drink of the royal court and the aristocracy.
Although tea was initially consumed from tea bowls imported from China, the English propensity for drinking black tea piping hot meant the bowls manufactured in Britain out of porcelain or bone china were too hot to handle. In the mid-1700s, handles were added to the bowl, which eventually evolved into the teacups and saucers we know today.
Although she hasn’t collected teacups for 300 years, Ethel says her collection started a long time ago. If her first husband, George, had lived, they’d have celebrated their 59th anniversary in 2022, and she has a bone china tea set from before they married.
“Bowring Brothers in downtown St. John’s had a fire and they were selling,” she says, adding, “My mother-in-law in Grand Banks had a shower for me before I got married and some people gave me teacups and saucers then.”
Born and raised in St. John’s, NL, Piercy has lived in Oxford, Nova Scotia, since 1979, when George was transferred to the bank branch there. In her Oxford home, Piercy keeps her “very favourites” in one cabinet that is all glass but for the dark wood frame. There are four shelves with 12 cups and saucers on each shelf, four pairs stacked in back, and four individual teacups on display in front. That’s 48 favourites, but Piercy knows who gave them to her or where she picked them up.
What is the appeal of teacups and saucers? In an age when large, heavy pottery mugs dominate markets and craft sales, why do dainty teacups and saucers inspire a steadfast, often lifelong loyalty?
“They fell out of style,” says Prince Edward Island food blogger Barbara Mayhew, who posts as My Island Bistro Kitchen. “I know someone who has teacups, but she says they don’t hold enough tea and she likes to microwave it when it gets cold. You can’t do that with gold-rimmed teacups, but I don’t mind that because for me, tea in a teacup just tastes better.”
Like Piercy, Mayhew only uses teacups and not merely on special occasions.
“I don’t believe in just owning them and packing them away,” Mayhew says. “I believe in using them. I love them and take care of them. I use them on a daily basis, and I use different ones every day.”
The choice is often dictated by the season. In June, Mayhew uses her Lily of the Valley teacups, while Piercy brings out the teacups with a strawberry motif. In the fall, they’ll use cups covered in autumn leaves or plums. Christmas teacups are highly anticipated.
Mayhew often includes cups and saucers from her extensive collection when she photographs her food creations. “If I’m doing something that suits a teacup, I will pull them out and use them. I made a strawberry-rhubarb tart and photographed it with the Aynsley teacup and saucer that is turquoise with a white band around it and pink roses. Very summery.”
There are two base designs for a teacup—pedestal and flat bottom—and 15 shapes, such as scalloped, fluted and ribbed. The handles, too, have their own styles, like angular, D-shaped, and curled. When it comes to motifs, you can find anything from flowers and fruits, to birds, to couples.
Ethel Piercy’s compromise for a guest who doesn’t like a teacup is a china mug by Roy Kirkham. The company’s website shows collections in the usual motifs of flowers and fruits, plus special interests like music, cats, and antique cars. There truly is a teacup for everyone.
Many modern collectors have at least one teacup and saucer in their cabinet commemorating a royal event. Piercy has two, one from the royal visit to Canada in June 1959, and one announcing the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana.
Piercy, who spends four months of the year at her grandparents’ home in Hant’s Harbour, NL, also has a complete tea set featuring the Newfoundland tartan. While her set was produced by Royal Adderley, other manufacturers like Royal Albert have produced tea sets with provincial tartans as well. She brings out that tea set when a friend from Newfoundland visits her in Oxford, and the set is coordinated with Newfoundland tartan placemats that were hand-woven in her home province.
Christina Martin enjoys tea in one of the teacups from her late grandmother’s collection.
Bring out the good dishes
There is something about visitors that often inspires us to bring out our best or favourite dishes, especially if they are teacups.
The first time I met Nova Scotia singer-songwriter Christina Martin in 2012, she had just moved to a farmhouse in Port Howe, along the Northumberland Strait, with her husband. When she invited me over, she said, “I’ll serve you coffee in my grandmother’s china cups and saucers.”
Martin’s grandparents, Joseph and Pauline Malenfant, owned a convenience/grocery story in St. Leonard, New Brunswick, and there was a small room on the main level where her grandmother had a china shop. Although she didn’t pick them out herself, Martin received about 20 to 25 teacups from her grandmother’s collection.
The award-winning musician recalls why she was so eager to use the teacups.
“It was the first time we had our own house and I was figuring out what I was going to keep,” she says. “We had this hutch that someone gave us so I could display them in our dining room. I’d get excited to have people over for tea and use these teacups.”
Now, a decade later, she feels differently. “I rarely think about that anymore. Now, I’d rather put books in there or put a desk there so I could write in here.”
Repurposing and sharing the legacies
It’s a tough question, but what happens when someone no longer use the teacups and saucers that have filled up a cabinet or cupboard? Or, they don’t want the tea sets they’ve found when cleaning out a relative’s house? Who wants 48 teacups and saucers?
Eleanor Bradbury, who owns and operates Birkinshaw’s, a tearoom in Amherst, Nova Scotia, with her husband, Adrian, says they often get offers of china cups and saucers from people clearing out an elderly person’s home.
“As long as they are English bone china and in very good condition, we generally accept them,” she says. “We are always very touched to have a piece of someone’s family offered to us like this, and we treasure every gift.”
Not every teacup makes it to the table at Birkinshaw’s, however. According to Bradbury, a Cordon Bleu-trained baker who immigrated to Canada with her family in 2010, the glazing and firing techniques used for cups made before the 1950s is more susceptible to staining by the tannins in tea.
Eleanor has her own collection of teacups from the 1920s and 1930s, as well as a collection of vintage Paddington Coalport china featuring Paddington Bear.
If you can’t find a tea shop willing to give your grandmother’s china teacups a good home, or yours have a few chips in them, there’s always upcycling.
Some people turn teacups and saucers into garden ornaments by gluing the cup to the saucer then hanging it as a bird feeder; others turn them into indoor flowerpots. You can even turn teacups into candles by filling them with wax and a wick.
There’s no reason to throw a teacup and saucer away, even if they are chipped or don’t match. Their beauty and functionality endure well beyond the limits of afternoon tea.
Since they’re colourful, beautiful and unique, I use saucers as dessert plates, and since they are small works of art, my mother used small plate holders to hang saucers on a wall in her guest bathroom.
Ethel Piercy doesn’t need to worry about what will happen to her collection. Her daughter, who lives on PEI, is as committed to fine china as her mother.
“I have two sons,” Ethel says, “and they said Anne gets all the dishes! She’s quite happy about that.”
While many people now enjoy their tea in handmade pottery mugs that are thicker and heavier than traditional fine china teacups, there’s too much history—and artistry—for these beauties to disappear completely from our tables, and our hearts.