Text by Betty Terry • Photography by John O’Hagan
They’re very small—measuring less than 2 inches across and weighing less than 1 ounce. And they go by different names—in English, tea-strainer basket and en français, passe-thé. Often made of sterling silver or silverplate, these dainty tea accessories can be ornately decorated with swirls, engraving, and even miniature lion heads. Who would imagine that something small enough to fit in the palm of your hand could create so much controversy?
Tea-strainer baskets, the ornate gadgets that can be fitted on the end of a teapot spout, are one of the lovely tea accessories commonly used during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Before the invention of tea bags in the early 20th century, the ritual of afternoon tea included spooning loose-leaf tea into a delicate china teapot and adding boiling water. As the steaming water swirled around the tea leaves, it steeped into the genial beverage so prized in the 19th century. As the hostess poured the hot tea into her best teacups, she needed something to strain the leaves from the liquid. In England, the birthplace of afternoon tea, she would typically place a small strainer set over the cup. But on the continent—from France to the steppes of Russia—she would more often use a tea-strainer basket.
Using strainer baskets was not a British custom, insists Jane Pettigrew, TeaTime’s London-based contributing editor and recipient of the British Empire Medal for Services to Tea Manufacture and History. “These little baskets were French, Swedish, and American but rarely English,” Jane points out. “They are an alternative to the tea strainer—perhaps for lazy people,” she adds, referencing an anecdote from British writer Julian Barnes, author of The History of the World in 10½ Chapters. One day as he was wandering around Paris, Barnes recalled, he saw a man having tea at a corner café:
As he poured himself a fresh cup, I spotted a little gadget, which seemed to me almost the definition of luxury: Attached to the teapot’s spout, and dangling by three delicate silver chains, was a strainer. As the man raised the pot to its pouring angle, this strainer swung outwards to catch the leaves. I couldn’t believe that serious thought had once gone into the matter of how to relieve this tea-drinking gentleman of the incredible burden of picking up a normal strainer with his free hand.
Michael Berry, owner of Berry & Company Antique Silver in San Jose, California, has a special affection for tea-strainer baskets. A tea drinker himself, he finds the diminutive accoutrements to be both utilitarian and attractive. “Loose tea, steeped in a properly warmed pot, makes a better cup of tea,” Michael says. Dispensing the tea through a strainer basket is a good way to remove the leaves after they’ve done their job, he says. “It just works.”
From his website, berrycom.com, and his online shop at rubylane.com, Michael sells all kinds of antique silver tea accessories from the late 19th and early 20th centuries—tea caddies, caddy spoons, tea strainers that fit over a cup, and, of course, tea-strainer baskets. (His company’s motto, which he inherited from his grandfather’s brick-and-mortar jewelry store in Washington, D.C., is “Odd Things Not Found Elsewhere.”) “The earliest tea-strainer baskets I have seen were from the late 1830s and the early 1840s—the early Victorian period,” Michael points out. The silver marks on these pieces indicate they were made in France and the United States, as well as Russia, Germany, Spain, and Austria.
“I’ve even seen a few British versions,” he says. Perhaps these were made by the British for foreign markets, Michael adds. These delicate tea-strainer baskets are highly collectible today. Because they’re small, an entire collection could be housed in a shallow drawer. For tea lovers who want to relive the romance of the 19th century, Michael says, they add an air of authenticity to afternoon tea. Eventually, tea bags, tea filters, and teapots with strainers built into the spout made the accessory obsolete. But isn’t it fun to brew and dispense a pot of tea the way it would have been served 150 years ago—with a tea-strainer basket?