This child-size tea set may have belonged to children of the Shear or Nolting families, who lived at Sully during the 19th and 20th centuries. The couple who donated it to the Park Authority said they were perusing goods at a yard sale when they happened upon the set. They were told that an electrician conducting restoration work at Sully in the 1970s discovered the tea set behind a wall in the attic and inside a box labeled “1901.” He took the box, and after his death his family sold it at the yard sale. Upon hearing its story, the couple purchased the set to return it to Sully.
Shear family members, including several young girls, lived at Sully from 1869-1910. Diplomat Frederick E. Nolting, his wife, and daughters Mary, Grace, Frances, and Jane lived at Sully from 1946-1958. Two of the daughters slept on the third floor in a room that had direct access to the attic.
Like many miniature ceramic objects, this set does not have a maker’s mark, and therefore it is difficult to determine the maker and date of manufacture. The blue flowers, leaves, and vines that give this tea set its pop of color are hand painted.
Miniature dishes were made as early as the 16th century in Europe, however the rise in popularity of miniature tea sets occurred in the 18th century. Tea sets would become particularly popular for young girls during the 19th century. Toys during that era were gender specific, preparing children for a world where gender strictly determined roles within society. In paintings, young girls from middle and upper class families are pictured with toys that were often small, fragile, and made out of porcelain, such as tea sets. While fun for children, tea sets encouraged careful indoor play, unlike the rowdier outdoor play in which boys were encouraged to participate. Certainly girls also sometimes played outside, and there are historic references to boys playing with tea sets. Playing with tea sets prepared girls for their future household roles, which included serving tea.
Miniature tea sets have clearly endured beyond their use as a training tool for young girls, and they continue to provide creative and fun play as popular children’s toys today.