A Teapot and a Teacup

A teapot and teacup at the Infused in History: A Tea Exhibit.
Smith-McDowell House

Infused in History: A Tea Exhibit has brought in tea enthusiasts from all over the region, and entertained other visitors who are happy to take a cup of tea along with the history lesson they get from the Smith-McDowell House tour.

For the staff at Smith-McDowell House, it is an opportunity to showcase many beautiful pieces of tea ware in its collection which don’t always get the attention they deserve.

According to Elaine Blake, House Manager, the staff is justifiably proud of a sampler on prominent display in the 1850s bedroom. In 2010, Dr. Joyce Bryant donated the fine silk embroidery on linen in its original curly maple frame. Dr. Bryant is a descendant of Easter Horner, who stitched the sampler in 1839 at the age of eleven. Visitors can also see a thread holder belonging to young Easter, located on the sewing chest in the upstairs hall. But for the duration of the Tea Exhibit, the house will show two other items, normally in storage, which were also part of the donation: a teacup and a teapot with a broken handle.

In Smith-McDowell House’s accession file they have an undated partial document, typewritten, presumably by Dr. Bryant’s mother, which describes these and other household items brought by the Horner family on their journey from England to Pennsylvania. She wrote, “The delicate white cup with the purple scenes was one of a 108-pc. set of china of the same period [1798]. Made in England, the set was brought to America in a sailing vessel in 1832. They opened their feather beds, inserted a layer of dishes, folded it over and inserted another layer. When filled, the mattress was roped and tied. Not one piece was broken in transit.”

“The little black Jasper teapot was used on shipboard during the trip in 1832. It is Wedgewood Jasper. Wedgewood conceived the idea, about 1790, of making dishes from colored clay. He discovered this black-jasper-clay in France. He made pottery from it noted for its very fine grain. However the cost of obtaining it made it prohibitive, so he looked for colored clay in England and found the blue clay that made his name famous. The Jasper dates from 1790/95, but not later than 1800. (info. f.  Walter H. Long, curator of local museum) (Auburn, N.Y.)”

This well-used teapot does not fit the current image of Wedgewood Jasperware as primarily decorative. It is not clear from the quote whether Mr. Long examined this teapot and identified it, or whether he simply provided information on Wedgewood Jasperware to the writer of the document. It lacks the contrasting ornamentation typical of Wedgewood Jasperware.

Wedgewood or not, it is thrilling to imagine this very piece of pottery used by the Horner family for the familiar ritual of making tea–maintaining a sense of domestic normalcy even while being tossed on the high seas. It is thrilling, too, to imagine the family arriving at its new home, holding its collective breath while unrolling the feather beds, and finding 108 perfectly preserved pieces of porcelain. The document doesn’t tell us when the teapot’s handle broke, or the fate of the 107 other pieces of china.

Infused in History: A Tea Exhibit is now showing at the Smith-McDowell House through September 28, 2019. Visitors will learn about tea and tea history with displays and informative panels in each of the period rooms. For additional information please visit www.wnchistory.org.

Written by Elaine Blake, Smith-McDowell House Manager.