Tea Leaf Reading in Commercial Art

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A Victorian era trade card depiecting a woman reading her own tea leaves
"Cup Tossing" by Nicholas Crowley, a popular commercial print of the late 19th century in which an older woman reads the tea leaves for a younger woman
Sheet Music cover for "In a Little Gypsy Tea Room" showing an "exotic" pin-up girl reading tea leaves for a happy young couple
Cartoonish Dutch children are shown reading a gigantic tea cup to foretell a happy future in this circa 1905 - 1910 postcard

The reading of tea leaves -- images of fortune tellers interpreting the signs left in a tea cup or saucer -- are 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) 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, a book or magazine covers or illustrations, sheet music, or business or trade cards.

When images of tea leaf reading as an activity are used in commercial art, the depictions of the tea leaf reader -- and the implicit social messages conveyed by those images -- tend to fall into identifiabe 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.
  • An old woman of lower social station, sometimes "exotic" but equally often "rural," reads the tea leaves for a younger woman, who is alone or accompanied; the younger woman is pretty and well-dressed; her face may bear a look of shock or surprise concerning the news she has been given.
  • An "exotic" young woman in a pin-up pose, generally dressed as a "Gypsy," reads the tea leaves for a young man or a couple.
  • A comical or cartoonish female reads tea leaves for her prospective comical or cartoonish male suitor; the subject of the reading is generally love.

When restaurants and tea rooms advertise their free tea leaf reading services, they generally employ images of tea leaf readers, tea cups, or tea kettles. These may appear on print ads, postcards, or matchbook covers.

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