Grocer’s or Tea Merchant’s Sign (teapot), British

Artist unkown

mid-to-late 19th century

Papier mâché, gilt and paint

Height: 77.7 cm

This enormous model of a teapot would not have been sturdy enough to survive out in the elements, so it seems it must have been displayed inside, probably in a shop window. On its front, it advertises a premium grade of Chinese tea, Yu-tsien (i.e. yuqian 雨前, meaning ‘before the rains’), offered at three shillings per pound, a price which was easily two to three times the price of ordinary tea. It was probably a variety of green tea – making it even more unusual, as by the turn of the 20th century Britain’s preference for black tea was well on its way to being established.


What makes this sign most unusual, however, is the Chinese inscription on its back. In a competent hand, written vertically with a calligraphy brush, is the sentence 在此不可小便 zàicǐ búkĕ xĭaobìan,meaning ‘small convenience not allowed here’. It is hard to fathom why someone would have written an injunction against urination on a model of a teapot, and the two other fragments of Chinese, written horizontally, are little help in explaining the mystery. They read: 白毛佬 báimáolăo (‘white-haired gent’) and 白毛 báimáo (‘white-haired’), but there is no other indication who the gent (or gents) might be.