Would someone have owned this?
Yes. This tea set, made by Union Porcelain Works, would have been deemed an acceptable object to own by a well-to-do member of society in the 1870s. The imagery, which includes stereotypical faces of an Asian man and an African man, indicate the contents of each vessel, tea and sugar, would not have been seen as racist, although it is very much seen in that light today.
Is there a reason that the finials are in the shape of human heads?
Yes, the little heads are intended to show the country of origin for each product. Because tea was imported from China, the head is Asian; the milk jug has the head of a goat, etc. The decoration is also a play on the name for this kind of set, which was made for two people and known as a "tête à tête" or "head to head" tea set.
I have a question about the label. Instead of saying “despite the racism we would see, contemporaries would find it clever”, why not reverse those clauses to emphasize current understanding of the harmfulness of such imagery? I find myself wondering why this piece is on display.
The gallery you are in is titled "Nations Divided", which looks at issues of race, slavery, and the civil war in nineteenth century America. As for the structure of the label text, the clauses could certainly be switched, but the current arrangement makes the point that racial judgements were normalized in that period.
Okay, I see how it works with the anti-discrimination piece to the left in the same case. Thank you.
It's a complex period to represent, to be sure. Thank you for asking about this work.