I become practically apoplectic when I watch someone prepare tea using a microwave, a mug and a teabag. I want to shout “stop, what are you doing?” But, of course, I don’t. The reason why is because it really doesn’t matter to them that what they are doing is not preparing tea, but making some sort of hot beverage, quickly. Am I a tea snob? Some might say ‘yes’, but I don’t think so. Would that same person think mixing a teaspoon of instant coffee powder into a mug of water and zapping that in the microwave is a good cup of coffee? I hope not.
I love all things tea … from the origins of the leaf to the ritualistic preparations, the variety of ethnic traditions, as well as the fascinating accoutrements. For preparation, the simple unadorned, unpretentious Brown Betty is one of my favorite teapots. I know its a name that is familiar to a lot of tea drinkers, but I wonder if anyone knows how this modest, round-bellied pot got its name and why some devout tea drinkers think it the only vessel worthy of steeping a perfect cuppa.
Although quintessentially British, the origins of the teapot are actually Chinese. As more and more tea was being imported from China into Europe and Great Britain beginning in the 1600s, a vessel in which to steep the tea became necessary. The first teapot ever created was in China in the 15th century, but the Chinese primarily steep their tea individually in small porcelain bowls called gaiwans. Europeans, however, wanted to steep larger quantities and demanded a more practical way of preparing and serving their tea. Knowing this, the East India Company commissioned the Chinese to come up with a larger, more useful vessel.
Chinese artisans designed these pots, each with a spout, handle and lid. These vessels were small, unadorned, round pots, made from the red clay of the Yixing area … and ideal for preparing a good cuppa tea. The teapots were packed in crates by the thousands and placed in the cargo holds in the bottom of the large sailing ships, which also helped to provide ballast, while the teas were then packed on top. Everything was sure to arrive safely to ports throughout Europe and England.
As we all know, tea was incredibly expensive at that time, and kept under lock and key, to be enjoyed only by the wealthy. As tea pots started appearing, the aristocracy demanded these as well. The Dutch were the first to request permission to try to reproduce these tea steeping ‘pots’. In 1679 two potters from Delft sent a letter to the court of the Count of Holland stating: “we, associates, have discovered production techniques which make it possible to copy the teapots from the East Indies. We request permission to produce these pots for 15 years and to be the only ones to market them”. But it was two silversmiths from Holland, brothers John and David Elers, who also saw the potential for this new industry and relocated to England to become potters.
In the Stoke-on-Trent area, the Elers brothers were able to find veins of fine red clay, the clay most like the red clay the Chinese were using. The brothers then quickly and secretly established a factory in the area, and began producing some of the finest pottery to be found … some of which is on display today in the Victory Albert Museum in London. Although their “fine pottery” business was not financially profitable, they had a huge influence on the growth of this industry, making Staffordshire the ceramics capital of the world.
As tea became more affordable, teapots became more in demand. Artisans from Swinton pottery developed a unique glaze from iron and manganese that was brushed on the outside of the clay pot. The excess glaze was allowed to run down the sides, creating an elegant streaky finish when it was fired. That shiny brown glaze, referred to as the Rockingham glaze, in combination with the natural color of the clay, helped give the Brown Betty pot its name.
So, we’ve learned how “Brown”, became part of the name of this teapot, but what about “Betty”?
During the Victorian era, every affluent household had servants. In the grander homes, there were servants who worked “downstairs” and servants who worked “upstairs”. The “downstairs” servants generally were not known by their name and were usually referred to by their job, “cook” or “boots”, but the “upstairs” servants were well known to the lords and ladies of the house and would probably be referred to by a ‘nick name’. MaryJane would become “Mary”. Abigail would become “Abby”. Elizabeth would become “Betty”.
The name Elizabeth, shortened to “Betty” was a very popular name then. The hugely successful Betty’s Tearooms were begun (and still very popular today) by Swiss baker, Fritz Butzer, but there was no “Betty” in his family. Perhaps he was inspired to name his tearoom for Betty Lupton, the queen of Harrogate, or the popular theater production about a maid named “Betty”, or could it have been “Betty” Rose, the granddaughter of his first investor in Betty’s Tearooms. As Elizabeth was such a popular name, chances were that at least one servant was called “Betty” … and, “Betty” probably served tea.
By the mid-1800s, with many Staffordshire Pottery factories producing them, the teapot had evolved somewhat and became considerably more affordable. And by 1926, it was estimated that the industry was producing approximately 500,000 Brown Betty Teapots per week … making it the most popular, widely used teapot in the country.
And what is it about this teapot that makes the Brown Betty my favorite pot for steeping tea? Not particularly colorful or decorative, this unpretentious, utilitarian pot has a big round belly which allows the loose leaves to swirl around and infuse the water properly. The clay retains the heat from the boiling water, holding the tea at the perfect temperature for me. The handle is big and comfortable and the spout is dripless. What more could anyone want in a teapot?