Treasures from the Vault: Tea and Coffee Set

Elizabeth Goings, Exhibitions Content Manager

The temperature is dropping and the leaves are finally changing; it’s a favorite time of year for many! The hot and muggy days of summer are gone, and it’s finally sweater weather, which all of my coworkers know I’m very excited about. But, more importantly, it’s hot tea and coffee weather, too! I know, I know, you can enjoy delicious, hot drinks throughout the year, but, let’s be honest, they’re best when it’s crisp and cool outside. In honor of this season of change, our treasure from the vault this week is an exquisite tea and coffee set.

A silver tea pot, coffee pot, and sugar pot.
Woodward and Grosjean, American. Silver Tea and Coffee Set. Coin silver and ivory, 1850s. Gift in honor of Nancy Peck Stewart, 2006.08.1

This set, complete with tea and coffee pots, sugar well, and creamer, was created by the artisans of Woodward and Grosjean, a silversmith shop that operated in Boston from 1847-1850. Though little is known of John Woodward and Charles Grosjean, we do know that after they closed up their small but respectable shop in 1850, they moved to New York City to be silversmiths for Tiffany & Co. Impressive! We can see from the intricate detail of this set why Tiffany & Co. wanted their talents.

Each piece in this set captures our attention. Ornate and playful, these pieces were created in the Rococo Revival style, popular in the mid 19th century. We can tell that it’s of the Rococo Revival style by the intricate floral details covering the bodies of each vessel. There are swirling leaves done in delicate chasing[1] at the top, and along the swell of each lower body and up the stems of the pots there are delicate repoussé[2] florals. There is a sense of whimsy in the decoration that is characteristic of Rococo décor – leaves and vines arch away from the main body, and the handles of the tea and coffee pots have been fashioned as branches, blurring the line between floral decoration and realism.

Adding to this sense of playfulness (and my favorite part of this set) are the little figures, or putti[3], on the top of each lid. While they serve the functional task of providing a handle for each vessel, on closer inspection we can see that they’re all individualized. The coffee pot has a figure inspecting a coffee bean, the figure on the teapot bends over a flower, the sugar vessel features someone holding a stalk of sugar cane, and, my favorite, the creamer’s lid shows someone sneaking a taste from a milk pail. How cool is that? Each figure identifies for the user each vessel, allowing them to know exactly what’s in each one without having to open the lid. These added adornments also showcase the skill of the silversmiths.

This close-up shows the details on the lid of one of the pieces in the set, a girl sits atop it.
Detailing on the set. Gift in honor of Nancy Peck Stewart, 2006.08.1.

All of the details in this set showcase the skill of Woodward and Grosjean. The repoussé and chasing are meticulous and precise, transporting us into a forest full of flowers and scrolling leaves. These pieces are refined, and most important, the expertise of the craftsmen also showcase the wealth and social status of their owners.

This may come as a surprise, but in the 19th century, tea and coffee were luxurious extras. The culture surrounding coffee and tea (in North America, at least) stems, naturally, from Britain. In the 18th century, coffee shops were referred to as “penny universities” in which the young men of the upper class could trade ideas on literature, law, and philosophy. While the term “penny university” makes us think coffee was cheap, this was a time when the average laborer earned a mere 8 pennies a week. Thus, coffee was deemed a luxury item only for those who had pennies to spare.

In America, coffee also gained popularity during the American Revolution – patriots vowed to forego tea in favor of the more patriotic coffee. But bear in mind that this decision wasn’t totally as a result of patriotism – after the Boston Tea Party it was virtually impossible to get tea in New England due to England’s tariffs, and the coffee that patriots were drinking was more hot roasted chicory water than legitimate coffee. However, once the revolution was over and trade was reestablished between Britain and the new United States, coffee and tea began flowing in American homes again – but you had to be willing (and able) to pay the price.

The idea that coffee is a luxury may sound foreign to us in the 21st century, but think of all the hip coffee shops that pop up in up-and-coming neighborhoods. These haunts are often some of the first signs of gentrification, and soon individuals of the upper middle class flock to these spaces for specialty brews and seasonal treats. The pour-over brews and artisanal roasts of these shops are far cries from what most of us make at home.

Now, imagine that you’re a well-to-do American living in New England a mere 80 years after the Revolution. What better way to show your wealth by serving your guests not just tea or coffee, but both. Not only that, but the pots you’re using to serve aren’t just painted ceramic—no. That won’t do. They’re pristine engraved silver that takes your breath away with its abundant and intricate floral designs. And not only do you have an individual pot for both tea and coffee, but you have a matching sugar bowl and creamer. This was how you showed off your coffee skills and wealth. Essentially, these were the 19th century versions of the ubiquitous Pumpkin Spice Latte or the more discerning cold brew.

[1] Chasing: a technique for decoration of metalwork by engraving the outside of the raised surface, resulting in decoration that cuts into the surface.
[2] Repoussé: a technique of metalwork decoration that has been hammered into relief from the reverse side, resulting in decoration that is raised from the surface.
[3] Putti: a representation of a naked child, especially a cupid or playful cherub made popular in Renaissance art.

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