Written by Laura Davies
The Cadogan teapot, a teapot that wasn’t invented by William Cadogan (1675-1726) The 1st Earl of Cadogan and that wasn’t used to brew tea. It is, however, surprisingly genius.
The design originated in China as an ‘upside down filling wine pot’ or ‘dao guan hu’ during the Qing Dynasty’s Kangxi Period (1661-1722). The pots have no lids and are filled through a hole in the bottom. Incredibly, when it’s turned right side up, no liquid leaks out and the wine can be poured from the spout as if no crazy sorcery is occurring.
Of course, it’s nothing magical. The pot doesn’t leak as the hole in the base is not just a hole. It’s actually the opening of a funnel. When upside-down, the pot fills easily, provided you remember to cover the spout with your finger. When you turn it over, the wine falls to the bottom, and the opening of the funnel is left above the liquid, preventing any escape.
Why they were designed like this remains a mystery. Some have suggested it was to keep away bugs, and while it would work for that, a lid seems like a much simpler option. There’s also the possibility of it being some kind of anti-spill feature designed for use on the railway, but this is unlikely to be true.
The most plausible explanation for the complex design is simply that they were a curiosity, used for entertaining guests. This novelty value is how the pots gained the Cadogan part of their name. In the early 19th century, Lord and Lady Cadogan brought one of the puzzle pots back to England to amuse their dinner party guests. Examples have been found worldwide in Japan, India, North Africa, and Peru, but as the Cadogans were the first English to own one, the pots got their name.
How they came to be ‘teapots’ is another mystery. Clearly, they’d be useless for brewing tea, as the pots can’t be cleaned inside and the leaves would block the funnel and spout. Instead, the Cadogans would use them to hold hot water, which they’d then pour over the tea. One possibility for this switch from wine is that the pots would’ve been packed with tea to prevent breakages on their journey from China. When they were unpacked in England, the recipients thought this indicated the two should be used together.
The story of the lidless pots is now so closely linked with tea that the globe-shaped designs of the teapots we know today have even been accredited to the Cadogan teapot. Some have even gone so far as to suggest Europeans invented the teapot. However, this is yet another example of the West claiming false credit as historic texts reveal the first Yixing teapots were made in China around 1500 AD. 300 years before the Cadogans first demonstrated theirs to mystified guests.
The misconception stems from the fact that, although China were the first to brew and drink tea, early methods didn’t require a teapot. Instead, the tea was formed into hard bricks and pieces were broken off for brewing in open pans. Later, powdered tea was invented, and it’d be whisked to form a paste directly in the cups. However, when loose leaf tea gained popularity during the Ming dynasty, a new brewing method was needed, and pots took off. The purple and red clay Yixing teapots, invented in that period, are still regarded as the best way to make tea. They have the unique ability to absorb the flavours of each brewing, and provided they were only used to make one variety of tea, they’d become seasoned, increasing the depth of flavour with each use.
As tea became more popular in Europe, Europeans needed a way to make their own teapots. They lacked the perfect clay of Yixing, but did realise that porcelain, developed by China in the 7th century, could be a good alternative. Unfortunately, they just couldn’t figure out how to make it and only succeeded in creating fragile soft paste varieties that exploded when filled with boiling water. A bit of an issue for a teapot. Korea developed their own harder porcelain in the 14th century and Japan managed it in the 17th. But, it wasn’t until the 18th century that German innovator Johan Bottger of Meissen had an industry breakthrough and managed to develop hard-paste porcelain for Europe. Finally, Brits could brew a cuppa without exploding pots and 3rd-degree burns.
Another dubiously named but cunningly designed teapot is the Assassin’s teapot. So called, because its unique structure gives it the ability to pour two completely different drinks without onlookers noticing. In theory, this would allow you to serve up a poisoned beverage and reassure your victim that it was safe by drinking from the same pot.
If they were to look inside the pot, however, they’d see it has two chambers, and the spout is also divided in two. Each chamber can be filled with a different liquid, and the server can control which comes out by blocking a specific hole with their finger as they pour. It works because atmospheric pressure and surface tension can hold the liquid in place, providing air has no separate way in. You see, for the liquid to get out, air needs to get in. So if you block the hole of one chamber, only the drink in the other will come out.
Why did I say it was dubiously named? Well, firstly, as far as we know, it’s never been used to assassinate anyone. Clearly, it’s possible that many murderers have used the method and gotten away with it. However, the whole system has a few give aways.
For starters, the teapots don’t look like ordinary teapots, and your victim’s suspicions might be raised when you cover the top hole as you pour. Secondly, one quick glimpse down the spout would allow your victims to see that it was divided in two. Finally, any well-mannered murderer knows that etiquette dictates that you always pour your companion’s drink before your own. If theirs was poisoned, this would leave traces at the end of the spout, which could contaminate your own drink.
It seems more likely that the assassin’s teapot would be used as a party piece to astonish guests or perhaps to smuggle whiskey into your coffee while leaving others unspiked. However, the concept of poisoning someone with tea isn’t unheard of.
Victorian serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton, also known as the Black Widow, used arsenic mixed in a teapot to murder 21 people for insurance pay-outs. This included 3 of her husbands and 11 of her children. When she was finally apprehended after 10 years of her family members dying suddenly and in gastric distress, her sentence was death by hanging. Curiously, the rope was rigged too short and, instead of a quick end by broken neck, she suffered a slow strangulation. For those interested in seeing a real Assassin’s teapot, it’s possible to see the small, black, Wedgewood pot she used at the Beamish Museum in County Durham.
More recently, Russian assassins used a teapot to murder Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko. He died in 2006 after meeting with two former KGB agents, Dmitry Kovtun and Andrey Lugovoy. They, or a waiter under their instructions, had laced a teapot with polonium–210, an extremely radiotoxic substance. Just 1 microgram is enough to kill an adult. Litvinenko requested a clean cup, suspecting they wanted him dead. Unfortunately, as it was the teapot that was poisoned he still received a lethal dose and died 23 days later.
Remarkably, it took the police 6 weeks to recover and test the teapot. When they finally did, they discovered that it was still radioactive and had since been used to serve tea to hundreds of guests. The implications of which we’ll never know.
The Inexhaustible Bottle
Another vessel that used a similar method to the Assassins teapot was the Inexhaustible Bottle. It went beyond tea parties and took the clever design to the stage as magic. The illusion was performed by many magicians during the 17th century under various names, such as Any Drink Called For, Satan’s Barman, the Bottle of Sobriety and Inebriety, and The Obliging Tea Kettle.
The trick usually involved asking members of the audience to name any drink and the magician would use the bottle to produce whatever they’d asked for. Just like with the assassin’s teapot, the insides of the bottle were divided into sections that were filled with different liquids. Each had a small hole on the base or side of the bottle and the magician could choose which one to unblock to allow the chosen drink to flow out.
The trick was often taken one step further by performing the endless pour. Special glasses were used that were mostly glass and held only a small amount of liquid. They let the magician convince his audience that the bottle was truly inexhaustible.
The use of physics and hydrostatics to trick the unsuspecting dates back much further than you’d expect. One famous trick, or moral lesson, is credited to the Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (570 BCE-495 BCE).
He’s said to have invented a cup that would teach its users about greed. On first sight, it looks like a normal drinking cup and can be used as one, provided you don’t help yourself to too much wine. The trick is in the central column that sticks up from the bowl of the cup. It contains a pipe and a chamber. If the level of wine in your cup stays below the level of the chamber, you’ll be fine and can drink happily. But, if you fill your glass too high, the liquid will spill into the chamber, travel through a pipe, spill out of the bottom of the cup, and end up all over you. Worse than that, hydrostatic pressure will create a siphon, so the entire cup will empty and you’ll end up humiliated and wineless.
While Pythagoras could be said to be humiliating his guests with honourable intentions by teaching them to accept what they have and not succumb to greed, other inventors were just in it for the laughs.
One such invention was the puzzle jug. The earliest example dates back to the 12th century, but they didn’t hit peak popularity until the 18th. The jugs found are often inscribed with instructions such as ‘Here, Gentlemen, come try your skill, I’ll hold a wager if you will. That you don’t drink this liquor all, without you spill and let some fall.’ and ‘Within this jug there is good liquor, ’tis fit for Parson or for Vicar, but how to drink and not to spill, will test the utmost of your skill’.
Hosts would challenge their friends to drink from the jug without spilling any liquid. The trick was that the neck of the jug was lined with holes and it was impossible to pour the conventional way. Only the most cunning could figure out that the handle was hollow and would act like a straw, allowing the contestant to suck the liquid through the spout.
Of course, drinking pranks didn’t end there. Without YouTube and Netflix, people had to get their kicks somewhere, and laughing at your friends getting covered in wine was as good a pastime as any. So, the fuddling cup was invented around the 15th century. It was a drinking vessel made up of 3 cups, joined together by tubes. As with the puzzle jug, the challenge was to drink from it without spilling, which could only be achieved if you drank from each cup in the right order.
This order was almost impossible to guess, and so much wine was spilt. To fuddle means ‘to make foolish by drink.‘ and the fuddling cup certainly lived up to its name unlike the Assassin’s teapot.
All went quiet in drinking prank circles until the 19th century when Danish-American inventor S.S. Adams decided the joke had been left long enough to be funny again and he invented the dribble cup. As you might be able to guess, it was a trick cup with hidden holes that would cause liquid to dribble out as you tried to drink. It was sold for 49 cents and marketed with the tagline ‘Make your drinking friends drool.’ with the promise of ‘Roaring laughs every time.’ We’ll have to take their word for it.
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