About Silver and Silver Plate Tea Sets
For centuries, silver has proven itself particularly suitable for household kitchen and dining objects that are both functional and ornamental. Silver’s moldable nature allows it to be fashioned into an unlimited range of shapes by talented silversmith artisans. Silver’s brilliant, reflective surface, its ability to accept many kinds of ornamentation and the universal respect it commands have all combined to make it the preferred metal for affluent and fashion conscious households.
Perhaps no other drinkable liquids are served as often in silver or silverplate pouring vessels as tea and coffee. These beverages were introduced in Europe and America during the 17th century, and the vessels used for them have not changed substantially in the 300 years since they first evolved. The drinking of tea became a polite art early on, one that involved an elaborate etiquette and an extensive array of objects. The serving and drinking of coffee also required numerous utensils and serving pieces, which were often made of silver.
Silver vessels to hold tea were patterned after those made in porcelain; coffee pots were made in somewhat larger sizes, supposedly to distinguish between the two. The various shapes that the two pots have taken through the years have followed the history of design. Early tea pots were pear-shaped, then angular, with many changes eventually leading to the most modern vessels.
Before the American Revolution, the great expense of both tea and silver was reflected in the typically small size of teapots and the limited number of companion pieces used with them. After the war, teapots and coffeepots began to be made in sets with matching sugar bowls, cream pots, slop bowls and other items. Very expensive sets included a kettle-on-stand with a burner, which supplied extra hot water as needed. The vogue for large, highly decorated ensembles – sometimes with a matching tray measuring as much as a yard in width – reached its zenith during the late 19th century.
Most manufacturers sold a tea pot or coffee pot separately from the whole set. Tea pots were expected to make a tremendous statement to guests about the financial assets of the host and hostess, and thus were often expensive. By selling the tea pots independently of its set, the cost of acquiring an entire service could be spread over a period of time.
Today, these prized silver and silver-plated tea sets are simply out of financial reach for most homeowners and collectors. Purchasing a separate tea kettle, coffee pot, sugar bowl, creamer and waste pot, together with a complimentary or matching tray, is the only affordable way to go.
Some collectors desire a matched set of all pieces, while others enjoy the variety of ‘mixing it up’. Tea and coffee sets were often quite large – some with as many as 19 different silver pieces! Unfortunately, many sets have been separated over the years. While the separate elements of tea services are often collected in their own right, these objects are of greater historical interest and monetary value when they remain together.
A complete tea and coffee set normally consists of a tea pot, a coffee pot, a creamer and a sugar bowl. Other pieces that were available included a hot water pot, a chocolate pot, a milk jug, a slop or waste bowl, a tea kettle, a box for storing tea called a tea caddy (some of which had locks), and a spooner to hold the spoons.
Finding a tray large enough for all these items was impossible - not surprising, since few would have been able to lift it when it was fully loaded. Some tea sets had small individual trays for resting the coffee and tea pots.
The difference between salvers and trays is that trays have handles and salvers do not. Trays are not found before the late 18th century. Most early salvers perished in the English Civil War and there are few survivors before the reign of Queen Anne.
America imported many salvers from England. Those they made themselves are similar to English ones at an earlier period, and because rare, are expensive The most common pre-Revolution salver has a shell and scroll border and is more restrained than English salvers of the period.
Salvers under 6 inches (15cm), are occasionally called waiters. The early 18th-century salver is found with a central foot and is sometimes incorrectly called a tazza. Borders generally follow those of the period.
There are few oblong salvers, and square examples tend to date from c.1720-40, when a few rare octofoil (eight sided) examples were also made. Oval salvers, usually from the late 18th century, are much sought after.
Trays are usually oblong or oval, and being larger than salvers, are more expensive. Trays from the 1750's are rare and command high prices.
Calling Card Trays: The calling card tray was a fixture in the middle- and upper-class Victorian home. When the servant answered the door, the visitor would present his card for examination. If the person was not home, the servant would place the card in a small tray. It was considered inappropriate for a visitor to flip through the stack of cards in the tray. Such an act would be the equivalent of reading a personal letter or diary.