Tea Vocabulary: Teapoys and Smouch

Even though we are happy members of the Facebook group, Afternoon Tea Across America (ATAA), it was Phyllis Barkey’s mention of the ATAA post on “teapoys,” in her Relevant Tea Leaf blog that caught our eye. Thank you Phyllis! We love adding to our knowledge of tea culture. As we set about discovering the origin and function of the teapoy, our research led to discovery of another tea term new to us: “smouch.” Read on to see how the two terms are related.

teapoy circa 1790
teapoy circa 1790 interior with tea caddies
Teapoy with four tea caddies, ca. 1790
[Images Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

What Is A Teapoy?

The word teapoy derives from the Hindu tepai, meaning ‘three-legged’ or ‘three-footed’ and refers to a small table or stand on a tripod support. These were used ‘in drawing rooms to prevent the company rising from their seats whilst taking refreshment,’ according to the Regency furniture designer George Smith (act. 1804–28) in ‘A Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration’ (1808). However, from about 1810 on, it came to signify a chest on a stand fitted with various compartments holding removable caddies for storing tea.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Browsing the UK’s Antiques Atlas online catalogue of teapoys that sell for $450 to $6,500, we learned that desirable features of the 19th century teapoy had evolved to include:

  • A lockable, hinged tea chest built on ornate legs or pedestal, the height of a side table
  • Two to five inset or removable tea caddies to hold loose leaf tea
  • One or two wells to hold glass mixing bowls for tea blending
  • Option – raisable, flat tabletop to act as serving station
  • Option – castor wheels
  • Option – pull handles for moving the table over to the hostess

The Lady of the House and Her Teapoy

Typically, in the usually smaller space of a London garden house, the tea was blended by the lady of the house, who also made the tea, and poured it into the tea cups. But there were servants on hand to deliver the cups and saucers, the milk and sugar and the pastries to the teapoys which would have been set up near each guest [like a modern day snack table]. As in the country, the servants would withdraw and the tea party guests were free to converse on any subject, with no fear of eavesdropping servants.”

– The Regency Redingote

Because tea was an expensive luxury until the late 18th century, it was customary for the household tea supply to be locked away, with the lady of the house having the only key. She herself would also do the blending of tea leaves prior to brewing, to ensure she served only high quality, unadulterated tea.

No Smouch at A Gentlewoman’s Afternoon Tea

Unfortunately, in the early days of tea’s burgeoning global popularity, not all tea merchants were honest. “Quite a number of country folk were able to pick up a tidy side profit each summer by making smouch for one of those dishonest tea dealers,” explains The Regency Redingote.

“Smouch” was slang for tea leaves secretly blended with fillers to cheaply increase product volume, and thereby, tea vendor profits. “The content of the smouch was determined by the color of the tea with which it was to be used,” The Regency Redingote tells us, “For black teas, such as bohea, dried ash leaves were most often used, while for green teas, dried elder buds were the preferred smouch ingredient.” Other forms of smouch included tree leaves, sawdust, gypsum and sheep’s dung.

London 1780 notice on the penal laws against tea adulteration
1780 London notice about new tea adulteration laws

Partly due to the fact that forests were being completely decimated in order to manufacture “smouch”, and due to the fact that poisonous dyes were being used, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1725 banning the mixing of tea leaves with any other leaves. This Act went completely unnoticed, which prompted another edict from the government in 1777 banning the sale of ‘smouch’ altogether.”

Tea, Toast and Travel

There were many attempts to stop the manufacture of smouch, but the thing that really put a stop to it is the Commutation Act, passed in 1784. The Commutation Act reduced the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5%. [Making profitability on tea sales attainable without artificially inflating supply]. Also much later, in 1875 a Food and Drug Act allowed the adulterated teas to be sent back to China instead of being sold. Later still, tea merchant John Horniman came up with the idea to sell his tea in sealed packages, instead of in bulk. This eventually kept our tea smouch-free. It’s crazy to think it took this long to somewhat regulate the ingredients in tea.”

– Sara Shacket, Tea Happiness

Because smouch was so easily camouflaged, a noblewoman would smartly blend her own teas, in full view of her guests, to reassure them of the quality of the tea she served. This takes us back to the need for a teapoy, which would have to be brought over to the hostess’ side at teatime, so that she could blend her tea herself before steeping and serving. Let us know, do you have a teapoy, or perhaps a tea chest that you pull out when serving afternoon tea?

Unknown artist, eighteenth century, A Family Being Served with Tea, ca. 1745, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Unknown artist, eighteenth century, A Family Being Served with Tea, ca. 1745, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Tea Voyageuse, discovering the world of afternoon tea, based in Atlanta, Georgia.

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