Dear Helaine and Joe:
I am not so much interested in the monetary value of this teapot, as I am about the story I have been told about its history. This teapot came to us from my husband’s grandmother who lived in Kearns, Texas, and the story is that back in the Civil War her family hid it and the other family silver in the well to keep the Union Army from looting them. After my husband’s grandmother died, we found that this teapot was pewter and not silver – and my husband said the Union Army never got that far south in Texas. Could the family history still be true?
Thanks, C. K-B
Dear C. K-B.:
Joe has spent his life in the South – in this case, Alabama and Tennessee – and the story of the silver and valuables hidden in the well is a ubiquitous folk tale in that part of the world. Joe’s maternal grandmother maintained that her family’s valuables had been hidden in the well to hide them from marauding federal troops, and over the years, he has heard the story innumerable times from his appraisal clients.
We suppose that in some cases the story is true, but if you think about it, if the well were such a popular hiding place, wouldn’t it be the first place Union soldiers would have looked for plunder? We really think our ancestors could have thought of many better, less obvious hiding places and in most cases the silver in the well story is a fable.
In any case, this is not a teapot. Rather it is a part of an apparatus called a tilt-cradle water pitcher. The protrusion on the side of the piece in today’s question is where the pitcher originally fitted into a frame that allowed the pitcher to be tipped securely and water poured into a goblet that was situated on a platform surface that was part of the frame’s base and below the pitcher’s spout.
These were elegant apparatuses that were often found on buffets and sideboards in the dining rooms of upscale Victorian homes. They often had matching silver-plated goblets, and this equipment would be part of the dining experience along with napkin rings, bone dishes, a plethora of flatware and open salts.
C. K-B. mentions she has learned her piece is “pewter,” and that is more or less correct. Originally it was probably silver-plated Britannia metal, which is a silvery alloy of tin, antimony and copper, which is closely related to pewter. Pewter is mainly an alloy of tin and copper but may also contain some bismuth and antimony. Lead can also be found in lower-grade pewter that was not intended to hold food.
Britannia metal was often used as a base for silver plating at the time when this particular water pitcher was manufactured, which was probably in the third quarter of the 19th century, probably circa 1870 or so. If there is a mark on the piece, C. K-B. failed to share it, so we cannot date the piece any closer but feel that a pre-Civil War date is unlikely.
This is probably a double-walled vessel intended to keep the liquid inside as cool as possible, which would be typical for this sort of pitcher. The complete set (pitcher, tilt-cradle and single goblet) would have retailed in the $1,000-plus range, but the pitcher alone should be valued at retail in the $200 to $300 range.
Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson have written a number of books on antiques. Do you have an item you’d like to know more about? Contact them at Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or email them at [email protected]. If you’d like your question to be considered for their column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus, with your inquiry.