Antique Porcelains and Lead Glaze

Three Antique Chinese Tea Cups

Several months ago I bought these three beautiful Chinese tea cups at an antique store. They were inaccurately labeled “sake cups” by the seller. They have lovely detailed hand-painted figures and patterns on them with real gold accents and are about 2″ in diameter, perfect size for gongfu tea. I used them a couple of times using the traditional gongfu method with a competition-grade ti kuanyin. The cups have a very nice delicate feel in the hand – nice weight and thickness and feel on the lip.

Antique Chinese Tea CupI am generally an advocate of using utilitarian objects for their intended purposes rather than shelving them away, regardless of their fragility, value or rarity. But I also recognize that when using antiques in situations in which they come in contact with food and drink some care should be taken to ensure that they are safe to use.

Having read and heard a small amount about lead in antique glazes, I thought it would probably be prudent to check these teacups for lead. Unlike many cups which are unpainted or more simply glazed on the inside these are decorated in their entirety, making the determination even more important since the tea would be in contact with the surface most likely to be unsafe. So I picked up a lead test kit at the hardware store and, after carefully following the instructions, watched as the swab began to turn pink, indicating that there was indeed lead leaching out of the cups. I was more than a little disappointed that I would have to relegate these special cups to a display cabinet rather than using them, but I was glad that I had taken the precaution to test them rather than continuing swallowing bits of lead with my good teas!

lead test

Test kits for lead are readily available and not very expensive. The kit I bought had two swabs in it. It seems well worth taking the time to perform the test on any suspect items, just to be on the safe side. More about testing for lead can be read here.

This is an excellent resource for information on post-1875 Chinese porcelains.

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7 Comments

  1. Thank you so much! I had put that Dragonware away when we did spring cleaning on the house and I totally forgot about it. I’d been meaning to post photos and get into the lead discussion – I’m almost positive that the set can’t be used, but at least now I can know for sure.

  2. The test is safe for the ceramic test objects too, which is important, of course. It’s a little sad watching it turn pink, when it does. But it would be pretty awesome if you discovered that your gorgeous Dragonware set was safe to use!

  3. I’ve used the tests as well.. easy.

  4. It’s good to know that they are so easy to use and readily available. Better than assuming that something is safe and drinking lead.

  5. It is unfortunate to discover your beautiful new tea cups suffer from this common affliction of antique glazes. However, it’s also worth pointing out that this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world for ever using them again.

    In general, one should always be careful with lead, and avoid ingesting it if possible, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend drinking from these cups on a daily basis, but it should be noted that using them every once in a while, (i.e. a couple of times a year, say, for special occasions), is unlikely to present a substantial health hazard to otherwise healthy adults.

    You should not serve children with these cups (the effects of lead exposure in children are much more severe than for adults, partly because it can affect their neurological development, and also because the absorption rate of ingested lead for children (50%) is fairly high). Adult bodies, however, actually absorb a much smaller portion of the lead they ingest (typically only around 10-15%), and given that the amount that comes off of things such as leaded glazes are much lower than than the other environmental sources that you usually hear about (leaded paint, etc), combined with the reduced absorption rate, means that your body really isn’t likely to be picking up a whole lot of it in any given use, when you think about it..

    That’s not to say that the cups are completely safe. There is no entirely safe level of lead, of course, even for adults. Less is always better, technically, but on the other hand, that doesn’t mean that if you take a sip out of a cup with a leaded glaze you’re going to fall over dead either. I look at it sorta like a power tool. Just because it isn’t completely safe doesn’t mean it can’t be used reasonably safely if the right precautions are observed. It’s all about being aware and careful of how you do it.

  6. Thank you for the additional information. I’m not really afraid of lead myself, and I tend to see a lot of the lead (and asbestos) fears as a little overblown. I’m positive that it would take WAY more lead than those cups can produce to do any real damage to me. But I have other cups than I know do not leach lead into my tea, which seems preferable.

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