This tea set has got to be one of the most beautiful and intriguing pieces of vintage tea china that I’ve owned. So much so that I still have it at home as I can’t bear to part with it! It was made by Paragon china (which I wrote about in a recent blog post) and dates from the late 1920s/early 1930s.
Last year, my mum had the good fortune (excuse the pun!) of finding this tea set in a charity shop without knowing how rare it is. When she described what she’d bought, I realised that it was one of the same tea sets that I’d spotted online but never thought I’d see in real life!
Tea leaf reading or tasseography, which (thanks to good old Wikipedia) I now know is the technical word for telling fortunes with tea leaves, coffee grounds or wine sediment, has been around for many years. Apparently before tea was introduced in Europe, fortunes were predicted with other substances such as lead or wax. I guess the increasing popularity of tea drinking brought with it many opportunities for informal fortune telling!
During the late nineteenth to early twentieth century a number of potteries started designing and making fortune telling tea cups. Some of them contained astrological symbols, others packs of cards, and some like my Paragon one, contained various pictures symbolising particularly fortuitous or rather more dismal events.
The original name of this Paragon tea set was ‘Signs and Omens’ and it came in a few different colours: blue, pink, and green. The symbols inside are usually in a vibrant pink or red colour. Around the inside rim of the cup is the phrase ‘Many curious things I see when telling fortunes in your tea’.
Each set came with a guidance leaflet that contained interpretations of the different symbols. The leaflets are extremely rare and even photocopies can cost almost as much as more common vintage tea sets! Unsurprisingly my tea set didn’t come with a leaflet but I did manage to find a few images of the leaflet online to read some of the instructions.
The rather ‘tongue and cheek’ nature of the instructions suggests that the tea sets were made for entertainment as a sort of parlour game that everyone could take a turn at. For example, the leaflet says (after defining tea leaf reading): ‘Much harmless amusement can by this means, be introduced into an otherwise dull tea party by any lady or for that matter gentleman who possesses a little imagination.‘ It also goes onto state that ‘no occult powers are claimed for this cup and saucer by the manufacturers’!
I love conjuring up images of 1930s tea parties where guests took it in turns to interpret each other’s leaves of Earl Grey or Darjeeling or whatever was in fashion at the time. I’m tempted to try out my tea set but I’m too scared of damaging it. So for now, I think I’ll just keep on admiring it and picturing what fortunes it might once have told!