English teacups: a collecting love letter



Decorative teacups, most of which came from England, were at the peak of their popularity as collectables in the 1950s and 1950s. It’s the things that made them popular then that are making them popular again:  their shapely shapes, pretty decorations, swirling curling handles and saucy saucers. Of course vintage teacups are ready to serve up your tea, but they are also dandy for off label uses like organizing things on your dresser, providing a safe home for your air plant, storing your pennies, catching your keys and a thousand other uses yet to be imagined.

Anyone who spends more than 35 seconds on Pinterest can tell you that teacups are a popular party favor. Even your least pinkies-up-plus-pearls kind of guest is going to have to work mighty hard not to be happy with their new bone china friend.

Teacups are proof that strong is beautiful. Made of bone china or porcelain, they’re made to last. Bone china is a soft-paste porcelain made with clay, kaolin and bone ash. It’s the sturdiest of the porcelains. Regular porcelain is a clay made with kaolin and other additives depending on where it’s being made.

Most English teacups can be used for actually drinking tea. Once formed and decorated, the painted or stamped design is covered with a clear glaze, making it safe for food use. But there are exceptions. Those that have a mesh of cracks in the clear glaze, known as crazing, are no longer food safe. And it’s probably not a good idea to use Rose Medallion, a popular export ware from the 1920s on, or Japanese novelty lusterware, for example, because those usually do not have a clear coat food-safe glaze.

There are many, many makers of teacups from England, ranging in quality from exquisitely delicate to fancied-up utilitarian. In general, 0n the higher end of the price spectrum are cups made by Shelley, Paragon, Aynsley, Coalport. In the middle are Royal Albert, Royal Standard, Rosina and a multitude of others makers. Like anything that was a trend at some point, there are makers galore and prices are all over the place from several hundred dollars to a few single dollars. Tea cup prices are determined by the same things as all vintage: scarcity, desirability and condition. If you’re favor shopping, you can often find teacup lots online at good prices. And it’s okay to politely ask a seller if they will offer you a bundle price. 

As with most things we humans collect, there is some teacup lingo you’ll find in listings. We’re arranged a few of the more common ones here, arranged alphabetically for your convenience.

Backstamps are the maker’s marks printed on the bottom of many cups and saucers. They are often accompanied by a handpainted style number or maker’s mark.

The bowl is the big round part that holds the tea, it can be flat, conical, flared or a more decorative shape.

Chintz is a tiny overall floral pattern.

Coffee cans are not teacups, but they do come with saucers. They are small straight sided cups usually used for espresso.

Corset waist teacups have a generously sized top and very nipped in bottom.

Demitasse cups are smaller than teacups and are generally used for espresso.

Fluted teacups and saucers have a series of furrowed wedges radiating from the center ring out that get grow in size as they head to edge.

Footed teacups have a distinctive foot at the bottom.

Luncheon sets include a teacup, saucer and matching luncheon plate.

Scalloped teacups and saucers have edges that are composed of arches or semi-circles. They can be evenly sized or alternate large and small.

Smooth shaped teacups and saucers are just that. Smooth and simple. They let the decoration do the talking.

Snack sets or tea and toast sets or luncheon sets are oversized plates with a place for your teacup. There is no saucer.

Swirled teacups and saucers are like fluted teacups that had a ride on the tilt-a-whirl.

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If you want to find out more about teacups, here are some wonderful places to read more:

The National Shelley Collector club has a fabulous pictorial glossary.

The Tea Blog of the English Tea Store has tasty tea time recipes and tea cup loving posts.

Teacup handle shapes have different names, Tea with Friends offers an introduction

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Non-bone china teacup related factoid: NOAA’s Storm Center describes 3″ hail as teacup (for reference, the scale ranges from  .5″ is marble or mothball to 4.5″ for grapefruit)





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1 comment

  1. What a wonderful post, Laurie. I recently attended a shower and the hostess used mix & match china to serve tea and the desserts. Everyone spent time comparing & commenting on the tea cup patterns. Too bad I didn’t know about “corset waisted” cups before the event because I surely would have won the “stump the guests” game. 🙂

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