Skip to content

‘No Stamp Act’: Pots & Politics in Early America

By Evelyn Strope (@develyn_16)

Although it may come as a shock to a twenty-first-century consumer, tea was once a political brew. The strong, steeped leaves and the teapots, teacups, and silverware that accompanied them were representative of clashes between imperialism and commercialism in the Atlantic world. As tea shifted from luxury to necessity in early modern Europe, Britons wanted tea-time utensils as fashionable as the drink itself.[1] Sensing a profitable opportunity  in this spike in tea consumption, British manufacturers raced to meet demand for teaware and challenge the Chinese stronghold on the porcelain market through the invention of ‘creamware’ or ‘pearlware.’ Both attractive and cost-effective, creamware opened up new markets for fine tableware beyond the middling classes, allowing ordinary men and women whose pocketbooks had once restricted them to rough earthenwares to dabble in the finer things in life. New-and-improved British ceramics were marketed throughout the Empire, including in the North American colonies, where tea and teaware would set the stage for now-infamous taxation protests. Long before disaffected colonists threw around 340 chests of tea into Boston Harbor, Americans had already begun to associate pots and politics. Take, for example, the ‘No Stamp Act’ teapot.

Now held in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, this teapot is possibly from the Cockpit Hill Factory in Derby, England, made between 1766 and 1770.[2] The creamware pot is emblazoned with black glazed messages – ‘No Stamp Act’ on the front and ‘American, Liberty Restored’ on the reverse – encircled with painted flowers and scrolled leaves; its spout and handle resemble knotted branches. The teapot commemorates the repeal of the Stamp Act, a 1765 law (enacted eight years before the Boston Tea Party!) which had required colonists to affix taxed stamps to printed materials. The direct tax was designed to raise revenue for an impoverished Britain after the Seven Years War but was not viewed as particularly innovative within Parliament.[3] The colonial response to the Stamp Act, however, came as quite the surprise. They swore off British goods, burned effigies of stamp collectors, and forced distributors to resign their posts until the duties were repealed. These protests, shrinking foreign trade, and domestic recession in 1765 made it easy for the British to call for repeal under the assumption that the government had too much to lose.[4] Despite the repeal in March 1766, the struggle between Britain and her colonies over trade and sovereignty was far from over, but our teapot shows that the period just after the repeal was one of celebration.

ES Teapot photo 2

In fact, the ‘No Stamp Act’ teapot can tell us much about that period, as long as we know where to look. True, the teapot embodies Anglo-American debates on taxation and consumption, but it also serves as a tangible product of the British tea and pottery trades. By pouring, admiring, and drinking from the ceramics of the tea service, Anglo-Americans gained a tangible connection to the world of goods created through the East India Company (EIC) trade in tea. Perhaps this teapot indicates a pro-American sentiment among the British working class that supported the repeal of the Stamp Act on political and intellectual grounds. The pot could also represent support for the repeal solely because the end of the tax meant the end of colonial nonimportation and the return of British ceramics to the lucrative American market. An annoyance at the EIC’s handling of the tea trade, then, would suggest that the politicization of tea – so prominent in the colonies in the 1770s – began much earlier than we thought. [5]

Why would consumers want to purchase and use the ‘No Stamp Act’ teapot after the Act’s repeal? Consumers purchase with regards to personal beliefs, social constructions, and aesthetic tastes, and shopping became a pastime brimming with exciting forms of advertising. As the pot shares similar headings and patterns with other extant pieces, it was likely pre-made and marketed in shop windows, and drew in consumers with a combination of its beauty, utility, and political message. The pot’s message was intended to be seen, read, interpreted, and debated within social settings. Maybe the maker hoped that the pattern would catch the eye of female passersby or that its message would appeal to male customers’ political leanings.

The irony of American nonconsumption during this period, however, is that it grew explicitly from consumer society. The ‘No Stamp Act’ teapot was intended to be consumed in celebration of the presumed success of nonconsumption in preventing the execution of the stamp tax. But were these protests actually contradictory? It was only natural that a society that built its empire on global trade and the commercial participation of its members would relate goods to the economic, political, and social issues of the time. By the end of the early modern period, the proliferation of goods and the rise of consumer societies had created an inseparable link between commercial and political worlds, so that even politics could be represented by things. If we ignore the remnants of those worlds in our study of the period – like our fascinating teapot – we lose an important piece of the puzzle.

Image: ‘No Stamp Act’ Teapot, Creamware, possibly Cockpit Hill Factory, c. 1766-1770,  courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

References:

[1] Victoria Avery, Mary Laven, and Melissa Calaresu, eds., Treasured Possessions: From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (London: PWP, 2015), 199; 92-96.

[2] National Museum of American History, “No Stamp Act Teapot,” NMAH, accessed 5 March 2018, http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1320066.

[3] John L. Bullion, A Great and Necessary Measure: George Grenville and the Genesis of the Stamp Act, 1763-1765 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982), 142.

[4] Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England, 1727 – 1783 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 366.

[5] See Jane T. Merritt, The Trouble with Tea: The Politics of Consumption in the Eighteenth-Century Global Economy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: