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The Novel Tea and the Tale of the Darling Dabblers

I was searching around for a few more teacups (we never have enough at The Novel Tea), and came across these hand-painted teacups and a few matching saucers that my grandmother painted. They are very thin china and I don’t remember ever actually using them but they are some of my favorite pieces in my own collection.  

My grandmother belonged to a china painting club as a young woman and she said it was a very popular hobby in the Midwest where she lived. When I rediscovered these hand painted pieces, I did some research on the subject and it was quite fascinating.  

In the late 1870’s there was quite a resurgence in decorated fine china.  In fact, Edward Strahan of the New York artists’ group, The Tile Club, called the craze a “decorative mania.” Other organizations, such as the Society of Decorative Art in New York City and the School of Design for Women in Philadelphia supported the acquisition of artistic experiences for women because they could produce objects for home use from their own homes.  Items to be decorated and sold included dinner ware, tea and coffee service pieces, dessert sets, pitchers and sink basins. Many amateur china painters evolved into serious and acknowledged artists, including Maria Longworth Nichols and Mary Louise McLaughlin.  The “mania” caught on and soon women were forming china painting clubs, having guest speakers, and learning from books written by McLaughlin and others.  These clubs and women’s groups were dubbed the “Darling Dabblers.”  China blanks began to be mass produced to support these home-based artists. In the spirit of women’s groups like quilting bees, needlework groups, candle making collectives, these china painters supported both the social fabric of their time and the practical application of goods produced for use in the home.  

For more information I suggest looking at the research done by Barbara Veith and Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen. The Met Museum has some good exerpts of their research available plus a list of other reference materials most of which I perused. 

My grandmother belonged to one of these Darling Dabbler clubs and only a few pieces that she made survive today; a few teacups with only two matching saucers, and the Pinecone Bowl.  This bowl was only ever used on two days in the year; Thanksgiving and Christmas Day and only to hold the cranberry sauce.  This is the one piece that is signed and dated: Elsie Gustafson, 1915.  

An even older example of Darling Dabbler work is a teapot that I know my great grandmother, Hannah Gustafson Capp, painted along with matching salt and pepper shakers.  The artwork on this piece, which is probably from the late 1800’s, is much simpler than the work done by Hannah’s daughter, Elsie, in the early 1900’s. Hannah’s life was much harder than Elsie’s however and this probably left little time for “decorative arts.”  Hannah had to support herself and her three small daughters after she became a widow and I can only imagine how much she treasured this piece that allowed her to enjoy some artistic expression and companionship with other women in Waukegan, Illinois in the wanning years of the 19th century.  I remember her distinctly and it’s an honor to hold these pieces she clearly treasured. 

So, check your own collections to see if you have any of these personal art gems that tell part of your family’s story, and as you add to your collections from.

The warmest tea,


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