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Oldest American Made Porcelain on Exhibit

A tea-rrific find from colonial South Carolina

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Bartlam Tea Bowl

Bartlam tea bowl, decorated porcelain, South Carolina, ca. 1765-9

--Historic Charleston Foundation

At the 57th Annual Winter Antiques Show held Jan. 21-30 in New York City, the Historic Charleston Foundation exhibited a new - or perhaps one should say, very old - object.

It's a small, delicate blue and white tea bowl - like a handless tea cup - made of soft-paste porcelain and decorated with a transfer-print. Dating from 1765-9, it's the earliest-known, intact piece of American-made porcelain, Foundation officials say. Analyses show it's made of the same ceramic, and decorated with the same scenes, as shards from the manufactory of one John Bartlam, an Englishman who set up shop at Cain Hoy (north of Charleston) in the 1760s.

When the tea-drinking habit spread from China to Europe in the mid-17th century, the English did as the Chinese did, and served the brew in small, dainty bowls. Approximately 100 years later, the bowl sprouted a handle; a 1774 catalog of Wedgwood tea-ware includes a quite modern-looking cup, taller than the old bowls and possessing a handle - an item possibly designed by the Scottish architect Robert Adam.

Even so, "tea bowls continued into the late 18th century," says Brandy Culp, curator at the Historic Charleston Foundation. "Then, tableware becomes larger. You go from these delicate, attenuated forms to substantial objects - the Victorian ideal of more being more."

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