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Tea Leaf Reading in Art

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A Victorian era trade card depicting a woman reading her own tea leaves.
A magazine illstration of a young woman reading a tea cup for a young man.
"Cup Tossing" engraved by C. W. Smalle from a painting by Nicholas Crowley, became a popular commercial print of the late 19th century; it depicts an older rural woman reading the tea leaves for a younger woman.
"Reading Tea Leaves} is a 1910 genre painting by Harry Roseland in which an African-American fortune teller reads the leaves for two upper-class White women. This picture, and many similar works by Roseland were sold in the form of postcards, calendar art, and frameable art prints.
A painting known variously under the titles "Dregs in the Cup," "Fortune Telling," "The Furtune Teller," or "Cup Reading," painted by William Sydney Mount (1807-1868), oil on canvas, 1838. This work of genre art, in which an older rural woman reads the tea leaves for a young couple, may be the earliest artistic depiction of tasseomancy.
Sheet Music cover for "In a Little Gypsy Tea Room" showing an "exotic" pin-up girl reading tea leaves for a happy young couple seated at separate tables, who have just met.
Cartoonish Dutch children are shown reading a gigantic tea cup to foretell a happy future in this circa 1925 postcard; the cup appears to have been inspired by the Jackson and Gosling Cup of Knowledge Basketweave pattern.
"Cup Reading" by the Salada Tea Company of Boston, in its "Four women" variant.

Tea leaf readings -- images of fortune tellers in the act of interpreting the signs left in a tea cup or saucer -- can be the subject of art, especially commercial paintings and cartoons used to decorate trade cards, postcards, sheet music, and advertisements during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Commercial art differs from gallery art. The latter term typically describes an original artistic rendering or a limited edition print which is sold "as art only," generally in a gallery setting. The former term refers to a reproduction of original art (essentially a mass-produced print, engraving, lithograph, or photograph) which is either attached to or published in support of the sales of an article of merchandise or is marketed as a decorative enhancement to an article of the stationer's and printer's trades, such as calendars, postcards, book or magazine covers or illustrations, sheet music, or business or trade cards

Restaurants and tea rooms that advertise free tea leaf reading services on print ads, postcards, or matchbook covers may employ images of tea leaf readers as well as pictures of tea cups or tea kettles. The dust jackets of books about tea leaf reading may also carry images of cup readers. As a subject of genre art, images of tea leaf readers (and fortune tellers in general) may be marketed as framable art prints, calendar art, magazine illustrations, book covers, topical postcards, movie posters, and advertisements.

Contents

Tea Leaf Reader Tropes

When images of tea leaf reading as an activity are used in commercial art, the depictions of the cup reader -- and the implicit social messages conveyed by those images -- tend to fall into identifiable general types:

  • A young woman reads her own tea leaves alone: She is invariably beautiful and very well-dressed; it is implied that she is reading about or for a love situation. Some of these solo images are tiled "The Stranger in the Cup," adding the contextual knowledge that the young woman has discovered a twig among her tea leaves, the symbol of an approaching visitor who is likely to be a suitor.
  • A young couple of marriageable age consult a tea cup: Whether they are having their cup interpreted by a reader or are doing the reading for themselves, they apparently receive good news concerning their betrothal or upcoming wedding. Because women are so closely associated with tea leaf reading, it is always the woman who takes the lead in the reading.
  • An older woman of lower social station, either "exotic" or "rural," reads the tea leaves for a younger woman: The younger woman, who is alone or accompanied by a female friend, is pretty and well-dressed; her face may bear a look of shock or surprise concerning the news she has been given. The reader may be a Scottish or Irish, she may be a "Gypsy," or she may be African-American. The sitter's social class may be rural, but it is more often upper class and urban, as betokened by her carrying a parasol or wearing a be-ribboned dress. Very often her arms or even shoulders are bare.
  • An "exotic" young "Gypsy" woman in a pin-up pose reads the tea leaves for a young man or a couple: The viewer's attention is deliberately split between the bashful or hopeful young "normal" couple and the sinuously "exotic" young woman who is far below them in social status but is privy to culturally inherited arcana, the full extent of which they will never know.
  • A comical or cartoonish female reads tea leaves for her comical or cartoonish male suitor: The subject of the reading is generally love, and the comedic nature of the image is supposedly heightened by the couple's infantility and obesity. They may be dressed in stereotypical "ethnic" costumes and, if speech balloons or captions are added, they may speak in exaggerated phonetic "dialect."
  • A pair or foursome of women seated at a table lean forward eagerly and share their cup readings: This type of image softens the divinatory nature of the act of reading cups because the women are posed as though they might be playing scrabble, bridge, or mah-jong, or discussing a slight social scandal. The ambiguity of their activity is employed to soften the idea that they may actually be engaged in an occult or magical act.

These images have had wide currency in commercial art for more than a century. In recognizing them here, i certainly do not condone their implicit biases or assumptions. They are presented to provide a historical key to understanding how commercial artists of the late 19th and 20th centuries viewed tea leaf divination as a subject for use in the illustration of book covers, product packaging, and tea company booklets

Tea Leaf Readers on Topical Postcards

For more information on dating postcards, see Dating Tea Room Postcards

For more information on Tea Room View Cards, see Vintage Tea Room Postcards

Topical postcards are those that deal with a topic of human life or interest rather than presenting a view, landscape, or room interior. As the postcard equivalent of genre art, topical cards depict the daily activities of their subjects.

At the beginning of the postcard era, it was quite common for topical cards to be issued in sets of six or twelve. This was how they best fit on the presses, and were most easily trimmed and bundled in stacks. (View cards of the era were single or came as a pair, with an exterior and interior view of a given building; only very large buildings and department stores might have as many as six views.)

Photographic Topical Fortune Telling Cards

A set of photographic topical cards may be hand-printed real photo post cards or, more commonly, they may be tinted and half-toned photo-reproductions. Hand-lettering or printed titles might then added to tie the group of cards together, and a series number on the back of the cards would also connect them.

Often one model or group of models would be costumed and posed for a set of six or twelve cards. For instance, one woman in "gypsy" costume might be shown reading cards, divining in a tea cup, reading someone's palm, scrying in a crystal ball, spinning a wheel of fortune, and so forth.

The photographic set titled "Your Fortune," which was issued by Joseph Welch and Sons in Portsmouth, England in 1907-1908 includes well-dressed or upper class female clients receiving tea leaf reading along with cartomancy, palmistry, and a wheel of fortune, from older, lower class, rustic or "Gypsy" women; See them here:

Artistic Topical Fortune Telling Cards

A set of six or twelve artistic topical cards usually consists of reproductions of a selection of painted or inked artwork by one artist. The style of rendering varies greatly, and may include gallery art, sentimental art, cartooning, or silhouette art.

The composition of an artistic topical set may stray from one topic to another. For instance, a fortune-telling set may not consist of six tea leaf readers; instead, one reader may be scrying into a crystal ball in the first image, laying out a spread of playing cards in the second, and reading a tea cup in the third.

Harry Roseland was a popular artist of the late 19th and early 20th century who created oil pointings athat depicted African American fortune tellers. In addition to his gallery art, he also provided commercial reproduction rights to his painting, in the form of images for calendars, postcard, jig-saw puzzles and wall-art prints. Not all of his paintings were reprodcued on cards, but quite a few were, and you can find them on the Harry Roseland page at this web site:

Collecting Topical Fortune Telling postcards

Collecting a full set of photographic or artistic topical postcards is not easy, because many cads are now more than 100 years old. The hunt to complete a set is fairly compelling to hobbyists, though, and most of us have more than one "open sets" going at one time.

With this in mind, I am creating pages for tea leaf reading and fortune teller postcard sets of various kinds. Be aware that some of these sets are incomplete in my collection. Digital scans or offers of physical copies for sale are always welcome!


catherine yronwode
curator, historian, and docent
The Mystic Tea Room

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