The tea time tradition began in Britain in the 1700′s when The 7th Duchess Anna Marie Stanhope of Bedford, England and lifelong friend of Queen Victoria got hungry in the middle of the afternoon. As the story goes, the good Duchess also known as Gentlewoman of Her Majesty’s Bedchamber, would have food brought to her in the afternoons and that would keep her until the evening meal. As she began this practice, other British hungry souls adopted this practice as well. The rest as they say is history, and the afternoon tea was established.
For the European and American colonist alike, tea was expensive, and drinking it was often a social event. A distinct etiquette developed around its consumption, and special utensils were designed for preparing and serving it. Teapots made of silver were the choice of the well-to-do. During the seventeenth century, tea imported from east Asia changed the drinking habits of Europe and, before long, the American colonies. The caffeine it contained was stimulating, but without the negative effects of the beer or ale Europeans and the colonists normally drank (even for breakfast), and — because it was made with water purified by boiling — it was healthier than plain water. For European and colonist alike, tea was expensive, and drinking it was often a social event. A distinct etiquette developed around its consumption, and special utensils were designed for preparing and serving it.
Teapots made of silver were the choice of the well-to-do. The metal retained heat and could be fashioned to make vessels of subtle sophistication and beauty. Its smooth surface was ideal for etching designs indicating ownership or commemorating events. The teapots sparkled when moved and handled. When not in use, they were displayed, infusing light into dark corners of colonial interiors. They were not only a symbol of the owner’s social standing and prosperity; silver vessels had monetary values well, and were a form of cash reserve that could be melted down and used as currency.
Boston was one of the main centers of colonial silver craft, and Paul Revere was one of the city’s leading silversmiths before and after the Revolution. The dramatically angled pot made by Revere in 1796, shown here, is radically different in style from the curvaceous prerevolutionary pot he holds in the 1768 painting by Copley.
Following the Revolutionary War, many American architects built in the Neoclassical style in honor of the new nation’s political foundations, based on the ideals of ancient Greece and Rome. Some examples are Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia State Capitol, Charles Bulfinch’s Boston State House, and Benjamin Latrobe’s designs for the U.S. Capitol. Paul Revere’s teapot is in the Federalist style, an American version of Neoclassicism that developed in New England. Seen from the side, Revere’s teapot looks like a section of a fluted (grooved) classical column, but when viewed from the top, the vessel is oval and appears much lighter in mass. Its oval footprint has the advantage of allowing most of the pot’s surface to be visible from the side when it is set on a shallow shelf. Etched garlands, as delicate as spider lace, loop in swags around its top and bottom. Their lightness adds grace to the teapot’s form without disturbing its strength. Revere was an energetic entrepreneur who understood the wisdom of diversifying. The market for his silver work was not limited to the wealthy, and he earned as much from many small jobs for people of more limited income as he did from the more expensive pieces made for the elite. He cast bells and cannon in bronze, and established the country’s copper industry. He also developed a copper-rolling machine and supplied protective copper sheathing for hulls of ships and copper bolts and spikes for the USS Constitution.
Silver continued to be the metal of choice when Thomas William Brown designed this tea service around 1840 –1850 for Edward Kidder, a prominent businessman in Wilmington, North Carolina, where Brown also lived. The pieces were crafted in much the same way Revere’s were a half century earlier. Each vessel began with a lump of silver that was hammered or rolled through a flatting press to form a sheet. It was then shaped into a three-dimensional form by pounding it against a stake to bend it bit by bit. Revere’s 1796 teapot has a soldered and riveted seam along the side with the handle, but a bowl shape could be hammered from a single sheet of silver without the need of soldering. Some parts, like finials (lid knobs) and feet (added to the pot to protect the surface of wooden tea tables from heat damage) were usually cast as solid pieces and attached by soldering. After the pot was smoothed and polished, it was ready for engraving. The vessel was filled with pitch to support the metal and keep it from denting when the silversmith pressed the engraving tool into the surface. The work required a steady hand and a stable surface, so the pot was rested against a leather pad filled with sand (see the leather pad in Copley’s portrait of Paul Revere). In contrast to Revere’s compact forms, Brown’s vessels are tall and stately. His tea service includes a lidded sugar bowl, a pitcher for cream, and a waste bowl (slop) to hold the dregs and unused tea when a new pot is to be brewed. Its owner was involved in several businesses and served on the board of directors of banks, community services, and charitable organizations, and he may have entertained with some frequency. The set was designed to serve tea with ease and grace. Lids are attached, so there is no need to set them down where they might leave a ring, and the rim of the waste bowl is broad enough to catch a splash before it reaches the table. Because heat from the pot might be transferred to the handle, teapots sometimes were given wood handles, as, for example, with Revere’s teapot. The delicately scrolled silver handles on Brown’s service arc away from the heated pot and are inlaid with precious ivory. The opening of silver mines in the West, beginning with the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Nevada in 1859, and the development of new technologies like electroplating (applying a layer of silver over a cheaper base metal) made silver wares more widely available.
In the economic boom that followed the Civil War, the taste for silver grew. Most homes of respectable means aspired to set a fine table, and homes of the elite desired ever more numerous and specialized silver utensils and containers. Silver production transformed from a small shop business, where almost everything was done by hand by a few craftsmen,to a large-scale industry with machine manufacturing. Large silver companies like Gorham, Reed & Barton, and Tiffany were founded in the nineteenth century, and America’s silver industry became the largest in the world. An exhibition in Paris in 1925 exhibited a new style that celebrated the sleek sophistication of the modern era, a style that became known as Art Deco. Art Deco taste favored the sleek efficiency of the modern machine age.Designer Gene Theobald and product stylist Virginia Hamill developed a type of tea service called the dinette set, whose components fit closely together in a carrying tray. The set could be moved easily as a unit and took up less space in the chic apartments of the urban sophisticates for whom they were designed. The tongue-in-cheek humor of Theobald’s Diament Dinette Set of 1928 makes it look less like a tea service than an ocean liner steaming across the table or a miniature version of the skyline glimpsed from an apartment window.
Inventive design was more important than the value of the raw material, and the set is plated rather than solid silver. A new machine-age material called Bakelite—a type of plastic developed between 1907 and 1909—was used for the knobs on the lids. The flat planes and straight lines of the silver reflect images and light differently than Revere’s or Brown’s pots. The earlier pots distort reflections, which glide over the surface and accent their curving shapes. The planes of the Diament Dinette Set create mirror-like images, which sometimes make the plane look solid and other times make it look transparent. The reflective play of surface and depth gives the tea set a lively and sparkling appearance, a feature impossible to capture in a static photograph.
Have a good week! -Mrs. S.
“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:23