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Tea Tables at Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg is a treasure chest which allows us to peek into the lives of our 18th century ancestors. And it houses a fascinating array of colonial tea tables and accompanying “tea things,” on display in the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.

Some of the first American – made tea tables were simply wooden trays positioned on stands. Later versions — such as this Massachusetts tea table (below) exhibited at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum — were made with fixed tops whose high molded edges gave the illusion of the earlier tray form. The tapered molding helped contain the expensive ceramic and silver tea wares that were used while serving and drinking tea. The cabriole legs were inspired by Chinese tea tables.

These handsome tea tables set the stage in every fine home for the display of the tea things such as ceramic or silver tea pots, cups and saucers, spoons, hot water urns, strainers and slop bowls. All these accoutrements were important components of the tea ritual carried out in the Colonies.


Small square tea table in Williamsburg
Tea table owned by Daniel Shute, the first minister of the South Hingham Massachusetts Church.

The table shown above originally belonged to Daniel Shute, the first minister of the South Hingham Massachusetts Church, and delegate to the 1780 Massachusetts constitutional convention that ratified the federal constitution. I can imagine the pastor’s family gathered around this table on the 17th of December, 1773, discussing the rebellious actions which took place the prior evening only a few miles north in Boston Harbor.

Round tea table in Williamsburg
18th century Virginia tilt-top tea table.

Until 1720, rectangular tea tables were the most common sort, but after that date, round tables with tilting tops (left) became more usual. The hinged top – this one hewed from one gigantic log – was designed to allow the table to be stored in a corner when it was not in use. As guests arrived for tea, the table would be brought to the center of the room where the tea things would be assembled.

This large tea table was originally owned by merchant Daniel Barraud (b.1725) of Norfolk and later Smithfield, Virginia. The table is attributed to Norfolk because of its history and the similarity of its turned shaft to those found on a number of other tables and stands with Norfolk associations.

Founded in 1680, Norfolk supported a large and healthy cabinetmaking community by the third quarter of the 18th century.

Lastly, I share an image of a child’s tea set from the colonial era, which is a part of the vast exhibit of porcelain and pottery on display. Judging from its pristine condition, this set was not much-used.

The exhibit included this script from a Boston newspaper advertisement placed two years prior to The Boston tea rebellion:

For Sale: Several complete Tea-Table Sets of Children’s cream-colored Toys.  Boston News-Letter November 28, 1771.

Child's tea set from tea tables at Colonial Williamsburg
18th century child's tea set.

Read more about the history of tea in American culture in A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson. Benjamin Press.

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Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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