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A History Of Childrens Tea Sets
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A History Of Childrens Tea Sets

Here is an article by Emile Decker on an exhibit that gives an interesting background to toy tea sets. Please note the term Faience or faïence is the conventional name in English for fine tin-glazed earthenware on a delicate pale buff body.

About Toy Tea-Sets
When faience and porcelain became widespread in the nineteenth century thanks to scientific and technical progress, their use was no longer restricted to making tableware and decorative vases. Faience and porcelain were also used certain types of toys, and European faience factories started to produce toy tea-sets and doll's accessories, in addition to their usual production.

A toy tea-set is made on a small scale for children to play with their dolls. This toy fascinates even adults for many hidden reasons. When such sets were made in porcelain or painted by hand, these objects were given to little girls as precious gifts. Because of their fragility, they were sometimes only used on special occasions under the supervision of parents. In our emotional memories of childhood, they belong to the world of games with, perhaps, a hint of the forbidden.These toy tea-sets, now collectors' items and a topic of research, are still surrounded by an aura of mystery. It is rather difficult to trace their origin due to a lack of documentation. Some of these pieces are so small that there is no space for identification marks.

Tableware or toys?
There lies the ambiguity of the doll's tea-set. It belongs to the world of toys but the art of making it is irrevocably linked to the skills required in handling its material, whether it is copper, pewter, tin, silver, faience, or porcelain. In the nineteenth century, France, together with England, was one of the leading producers of faience in Europe. While porcelain was for a long time the prerogative of Germany, as England was in the case of faience, the situation in the eighteenth century changed, and the French revival raised national production to a peak.

The toy tea-set has now become a pretext for a journey back into time, from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the Second World War, when plastic replaced the fine faience and porcelain of these marvellous children's toys. Admittedly, contemporary toy tea-sets continue to be made in ceramic, but the quality is not equal to the former production. Aware of this difficulty, certain toy manufacturers have reproduced the toy tea-sets of our grandmothers to suit modern tastes, but these seem to be intended more as decorative objects than useable.

A brief history
The ancient Greeks had dolls, balls and rattles. Dolls were also very widespread in Rome. Potters have always thought of the pleasure of children by making miniature ceramic objects for them. The first records of tea-sets as toys for children appeared in the sixteenth century. They were made in pewter and copper, and came from Germany, a country known for producing toys in wood and metal. Until the end of the first half of the nineteenth century, France turned to Germany for many of its sales of toys. This trend was subsequently reversed and for a while the quality and attractive appearance of French toys superseded German supremacy in the industry of knick-knacks. Before the era of the toy tea-sets that came out of the kilns of faience and porcelain manufacturers, there was a period when they were made in gold and silver, in pottery and pewter, in metal and copper. Silversmiths placed all their savoir-faire at the service of the young princesses of Europe.

Although the fashion for doll's tea-sets in faience and porcelain goes back to the eighteenth century, it was not yet an established phenomenon. First of all, because ceramic objects of a high quality for children were made only for wealthy customers, and secondly because these toys did not reach the height of their popularity until one century later, with the industrial revolution. Reports on the Exhibitions which were held throughout the nineteenth century indicate that the vogue for these toys goes back to the 1850's.The Universal Exhibition of 1855 seems to have been the starting point of their expansion. The toy industry went through an extraordinary growth in less than twenty years and became an economic activity in its own right.

The Arrival of Plastic
In 1865, the appearance of celluloid and bakelite on the market announced the arrival of plastic.During the period between the two world wars, new, ambitious materials emerged, for example, rhodoid invented by Rhône Poulenc, which was similar to celluloid but not inflammable. The advantages of plastic is that it is strong, safe, inexpensive, comes in many colours, and is easy to machine and mould. Dolls were the first toys to be made in this material. The first celluloid dolls made in the late nineteenth century announced the end of the baby dolls with porcelain faces. The famous Bluette doll (1905-1960) is a fine example. The same applies to toy tea -sets.After having fought against iron, the fight against plastic was finally lost by the ceramic industry in the early 1960's. This exhibition of toy tea-sets in faience and porcelain is therefore all the more rare and interesting.

Emile Decker
Curator of the Museum of Sarreguemines.