Posted in Kafevend Blog

What makes a cup? Porcelain

Today on the Kafevend blog, we are returning once more to answer: what makes a cup? With water, the kettle and electricity covered so far, this time we are considering the cup itself. Who first came up with the finely wrought cups we turn to every day? Today we are going to consider the history, before covering how it is made next week.


Unless you prefer a plastic beaker or glass cup, chances are your cup of choice is made out of something called porcelain. This is a type of ceramic made up of various materials, devised first by the ancient Chinese. Porcelain was first developed in China around 2,000 years ago, though some prototypical versions go back centuries further still. There are many surviving examples of this ancient porcelain. More recognisable items include bowls and plates, but it was also used to create  more complex crockery and even figures of animals and people. Along with the multitude of forms porcelain took, there was a wide range of decorative styles. This includes decorations created out of porcelain itself like a stucco or render, but also elaborately painted images and geometric patterns.

As the centuries went by, porcelain production became a huge industry in the country. Particularly refined types were highly prized by even the most elite in the land at the time. Porcelain objects were given as tribute, and one emperor even had a building erected and faced using white porcelain bricks- it must have really stood out reflecting the sun!

And beyond

Chinese porcelain was first exported to other areas of eastern Asia such as Japan and Korea, before heading westwards and reaching the Islamic world and the edge of the Mediterranean. By around the 14th century it was being exported to Europe where it was just as coveted as everywhere else it had reached. The name we give it originated at this time- it comes from the old Italian porcellana, meaning cowrie shell, thanks to its resemblance to this translucent shell. It didn't take long for certain Europeans to try and figure out how this wondrous stuff was made. The first attempt was made in Florence in the 16th century with backing from the influential Medici family, but it met with little success.

This story was repeated many times over until in 1708, a Saxon who went by the rather elaborate name of Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, found a way to make porcelain. It became a closely kept secret in Saxony, but this was spoilt by Francois Xacier d'Entrecolles, a French Jesuit father. He had read about and seen how porcelain was made when he was in China on a visit. On his return to Europe in 1712, he published these details in a letter, and soon the technique became known throughout Europe.

The most common form of porcelain we use today is bone china, which was invented here in Britain in the mid 18th century by Thomas Frye. Josiah Spode and his son did much to popularise it a few decades later, and soon other pottery manufacturers were turning to this new mix for their own designs.



Previous Story

Next Story