19th Century Silver Tea Service
By Jubilee P. Reid
Situated on a cabinet in the Main Hall of the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum is an ornate 150-year-old silver tea service. This set dates to 1874 and contains a large coffee urn, two teapots, a creamer, and sugar pot. The set is displayed on a coordinating silver tray. This tea service has an unusual design featuring Greek figures along the rim of each piece and a slightly geometric floral pattern etched in the surface. Although these intricate silver pieces are dark and tarnished, if polished they would gleam nearly as much as the day they were manufactured.
Contemporary tea sets originated in China around 1000 A.D. during the Song Dynasty. Tea was imported to Western Europe and England in the mid 1600’s but, due to the expense of shipping from China, it was many years before the middle and working classes could afford it. Matching tea sets, particularly ones including five or six pieces, did not become popular until the reign of Queen Victoria in the 1800’s. The tradition of tea immigrated to North America with the colonists; colonial silversmiths began producing the necessary wares.
The tea service on display was manufactured in Taunton, Massachusetts in 1874. The coffee urn, creamer, sugar pot, and two teapots were made by Reed & Barton. This widely acclaimed silver company began in 1824 as Babbitt & Crossman operated by silversmiths Isaac Babbitt (1799 – 1862) and William Ware Crossman (1794 – 1882). The company changed names and ownership numerous times and, after financial hardship, slowly drifted into the hands of Henry Gooding Reed (1810 – 1901) and Charles E. Barton (1812 – 1867). By 1857 the company was fully reorganized as Reed & Barton.
Though one might question the reasoning behind engraving such a strange conglomeration of designs such as Greek figures and random faces on a teapot, new patterns were continuously designed to retain public interest. The post-Civil war United States was thriving during this “Gilded Age” and was noted for outlandish trends. The set on display is characteristic of Reed & Barton’s 1870’s products. They experimented with diverse styles during this time such as Japanese floral patterns and ancient Roman and Egyptian themed pieces and delved into classic literature, allegory, and mysticism. Within a few years these styles would soon lose public interest but at the time they were quite fashionable. As George Gibb stated in his book, The Whitesmiths of Taunton: A History of Reed & Barton, 1824-1943, “the bodies and covers of the ware displayed a confusing array of decorative detail… mysterious scrolls were engraved upon teapots and detached heads peered out from the ware in unexpected places.” This excerpt accurately describes the museum’s set which includes all these odd details.
Due to Reed & Barton and a few other silver companies being the town’s principal industry, Taunton, Massachusetts was known as “Silver City” during the 1800’s. Reed & Barton also produced many prestigious silver pieces belonging to various U.S. presidents as well as the medals for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. They continued to operate until 2015.
Each piece of the museum’s set has between 12 and 30 Greek figures engraved around the rim. The coffee urn is 15 inches tall with a candle holder underneath to keep the contents heated. A person’s face is engraved where the two handles attach on either side. The footed teapots are each 10 inches tall and nearly identical, yet their designs are not identically spaced. The smaller sugar pot and creamer have the same engravings as the larger pieces. All the pieces except the creamer have lids. The handle on each lid is shaped like a trophy with a swanlike bird on either side.
This set is constructed of electroplated silver over a less expensive Britannia metal base. Each piece has several numbers stamped in the base indicating the pattern and piece as well as “MFD & Plated by Reed & Barton.” Interestingly, several pieces of the set have a number marked out and restamped into the metal as if there had been a labeling mistake. This set is also stamped with “patent applied for.” Not every pattern produced was granted a patent.
The silverplated tray was produced by Sheridan Silver Company, also of Taunton, Massachusetts. It is 30 by 18 inches with double handles and 4 feet which hold it an inch above the tabletop. The tray is much newer than the rest of the silver on display. It is stamped on the underside with a mark featuring an elaborately styled “S” with a crown to the left of it and a shield on the right. Sheridan Silver Co. used this marking between 1946 and 1973, dating the tray to this time range. It is engraved with an ornate swirl design featuring five-petaled flowers and leaves and a crosshatch pattern.
The Sheridan Silver Company originated in 1944 as the C & C Silver Company operated by Joseph Caiozzo and Harry Carmody. Two years later it was incorporated as the Sheridan Silver Co. Inc. However, this was not one of the long-lasting silver manufacturers; within a few decades the Sheridan Silver Co. closed entirely. The tray and tea service were generously donated by Carolyn S. Wilson in 2003.
In an era when exquisite tea services such as this were used for formal entertaining, this set likely graced a refined parlor in an elegant home. Tea services are still popular today among collectors worldwide.