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Why are traditional tea cups so small?

We bought recently at auction an Imari teapot with six cups and saucers. If auction catalogue is correct, from first quarter 18th century. I'm amazed at how small (and beautiful, by the way) these pieces are. Each teacups capacity is clearly less than an ounce. Questions to the experts on the subject:
a) was tea in those times drunk very concentrated, siropy kind of stuff, therefore the small capacity, or
b) was it too expensive, or
c) did it get cold too soon, or
d) none of the above?

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  1. Every year at Thanksgiving, I'm reminded of what you're talking about. I inherited my grandmother's Limoges china set purchased around 1920 (not as antique as your Imari, for sure) and I put it out for that meal every year. Sons and I always marvel at how small the dinner plates are. They measure 9 3/4" with the actual food space diameter at 6" and my current everyday stoneware measures 10 3/4". I am sure portion sizes and cultural differences must have something to do with this. Also, the teacups I have with this set hold 4 ounces, a tiny amount compared to an 8 ounce or 6 ounce cup of tea or coffee these days. Curious to know what others think.

    10 Replies
    1. re: Val

      I've noticed this same thing with a set of dishes that belonged to my grandmother and great grandmother (they had the same pattern) - dishes are definitely smaller than my newer ones.

      1. re: MMRuth

        What you may actually quite possibly could be luncheon plates. They were smaller than dinner plates but larger than salad/dessert plates.

        1. re: Candy

          Could be - I'll check out Replacements - it's a Haviland Autumn leaf pattern - not something I'd pick myself, but it does have 24 of those plates, which I think will come in handy some day if I ever have a crowd to Thanksgiving!

          1. re: MMRuth

            I just checked and the dinner plate in that pattern was 10 3/8"
            there were 2 luncheon plates in different sizes and a salad plate and bread and butter plate. When I was working in the table top business many years ago one task I had was to eliminate the inventory stored in the basement of old and discontinued china i had to write us descriptions and give measurements to a number of dealers like Replacements, China Chasers etc. Replacements was just getting started then. Anyway...the luncheon plates were the ones that were 8+" and 9+". Dinner plates were over 10" and occasionally a company would have service plates available which were more like 12" in diameter.

          2. re: Candy

            hmmm...mine are definitely dinner plates, service for 12. I remember my grandmother showing me how to set a formal place and we laughed about all of the "other plates." There are 12 luncheon plates and then 12 even smaller plates that are for rolls...then there are the teacup saucers. Sheesh!

        2. re: Val

          And now you know why Americans are getting fatter and fatter. Our idea of portions has become skewed. A large amount of research has been reported recently about this. What "cleaning your plate" meant years ago and what it means now is often 1000's of calories.

          Simple way to lose weight, in fact is to use those size dishes again.

          And if you can find the old "Blue Plate Special" divided plates, even better, carbs and protein in the two smaller areas and Veggies in the main area. eat the same food, just smaller, "eye" filling portions.

          1. re: Quine

            Thanks--believe me, I'm aware of portions; I'm always telling people to eat their dinner on a sandwich or luncheon plate if they complain about their weight or are trying to eat better--I've been eating smaller portions for years now.

            1. re: Quine

              A case in point would be the tin plates I've bought over the years for picnics. 15 years ago (from Pier One imports) they were 9 1/2 inches wide, 10 years ago (from Sur La Table) they were 10 1/4 inches wide, and about 3 years ago (from Target) they were a full 11 inches.

              1. re: Quine

                Most of the dinnerware used in the US is produced in Europe. Fransiscan was an old American Company was absorbed by Wedgwood. Pfaltzgraf is an American produced line and of course Lenox but when it comes to sizing in dinnerware the Europeans set the standards on sizes. Of course there is a lot of Japanese companies too like Noritake and Mikasa but they copied the sizing of the dinnerware to meet the same proportions of their European counterparts when they want to export to them

                China history is really interesting. There is a lot of good reading on the subject. See what your library has on the shelves. I also used to appraise for the company I workrd for, maily estate appraisals. I had to do a lot of research on it when I was getting started. Murder, mayhem, intrigue dinnerware history has it all.

            2. Well, early on, people used the cups to hold the tea, and the saucers to drink from. If you only poured a little tea at a time, it was kept very hot in the pot. Drinking from the saucer allowed it to cool off.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Karl S

                Also, I think tea was very expensive in those days.

                  1. I have quite a few little cups myself and always wondered too.
                    Someone also told me that there are such things as small hot choclate cups??? True or Rumor?

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: chef chicklet

                      Yes, there are hot chocolate/mocha cups, but I believe that they always have handles.

                    2. Here's a shot in the dark - tea drinking largely served social function, rather than for satisfying thirst. Perhaps the smaller tea cups were more conducive to social interaction and hospitality, where the host had to make sure that cups were always full. Seems to accord with other traditional tea-drinking societies, where drinking tea was largely ceremonial (like China or Japan). So, if tea sets in the 18th Century were small (from the plates to the teacups themselves), this might be because the purpose of serving tea and assorted cakes/cookies/etc. was not for added nourishment during the day, but for the community-building purpose of breaking bread with others. Of course, I have nothing to back up this conjecture...

                      1. Are you sure that they aren't chocolate cups? They would be about 3 or 4 oz. They are a little larger than a demitasse cup.
                        One way to tell is that the tea pot would be shaped more like a cofffee pot than a teapot. (Taller rather than shorter)

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: troutpoint

                          I very much doubt there was chocoloate in early 18th century Japan.
                          Anyways, the teapot is definitely tea-ish, round shaped, very thin spout.

                        2. Even modern fine Chinese teacups only hold a couple of ounces of liquid. The idea is that you provide tea and sometimes small amounts of food as hospitality. I always have to make sure that when I go to buy jade (or anything of similar value, even electronics) in Hong Kong, I have drunk nothing for quite a while. Negotiations are protracted and calm, and you drink many many many many little 1-ounce cups of tea.

                          In addition, small cups mean they have to be refilled more often, which gives the host "face" -- he pours tea more often, looks more generous, and receives the accolades (in Hong Kong, tapping fingers on the table) for his hospitality.

                          Finally, the idea of the 16-ounce cup of tea is strictly a North American thing -- even in Britain and India, tea is not generally served in giant buckets, but in small (usually 4 to 6-ounce) cups.

                          After having lived in Europe and having got used to the "normal" portions of coffee, tea and soda, I came back to the U.S. and asked for a cup of tea at a coffee/tea shop. I got a twenty-ounce cup of hot water and a Lipton tea bag. I nearly cried.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Das Ubergeek

                            i had a regular battle with a guy who ran a coffee truck at my commuter line station. his "small" cup was 12 oz. a tea bag is designed to make a 6 oz cup. i would ask for the cup to only be filled 1/2 way, and he would argue with me EVERY TIME, no matter how politely i asked or explained. like somehow he thought i was asking him to cheat me. it became so absurd, i stopped trying to buy anything from him.

                            recently i started using my mother's wedgewood china (only from the 70s) and all the plates are tiny compared to my regular everyday ware.

                          2. one thing to consider is the availability of food and drink.

                            Nowadays especially in America, you can get anything you want at any time you want if you have the money. Not that long ago, you bought what was in season and produced nearby. Spices and teas were the exception in terms of production, but were expensive.

                            As food production and availability increased, so have portion sizes, plate sizes and our sizes.

                            Coke used to be for sale in 6 oz bottles. A standard serving of coffee was 5.

                            1. Perhaps they could be a childs tea set?

                              If not, my understanding is that people living outside of the USA, generally sip tea.

                              Also I think there is some truth in how portions from ages ago has changed. Sugar was once rationed in the war era and those in-between times it was costly in comparison to what one made in wages.