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Insulated ice water pitchers allowed those lucky enough to afford them a bit of cooling relief on a hot day. THF.104141. Gift of Mrs. Frederick Sturm


August 2011

Keeping Cool the Victorian Way

As we enter the “Dog Days” of August, it is insightful to see how people a century ago sought relief from the heat. Lacking our technologies, folks coped, sometimes in ingenious ways…



MORE:  Keeping Cool the Victorian Way

The 1891 Benjamin Allen and Company catalogue shows the range of tilting water pitcher sets available to retailers. This is the simplest model, a $23.00 set. THF.103657


This is Benjamin Allen and Company’s most ornate option, a $53.00 set, with Egyptian-revival ornament, including images of camels and sphinxes. THF.103656


Before electric refrigeration and air conditioning, people’s cooling options were limited.  For the wealthy, spending the summer at the seaside or, perhaps a mountain resort far away from the sweltering cities was ideal.  People of modest means stayed at home coping as best as they could.  Ice boxes to keep food and beverages cold weren’t common until the 1880s.  Even then, ice was expensive and carefully conserved. 

The Tilting Water Pitcher

Just off the main floor of Henry Ford Museum, in the Silver and Pewter Gallery, is an artifact of Victorian life that tells a story of ingenuity and innovation.  To our eyes, this tilting silver-plated ice water pitcher on a stand looks rather odd, but such objects were common in American homes into the early twentieth century. 

The innovation story begins in the early 19th century with the discovery of electroplating — electrically adhering thin layers of silver onto base metals like iron and steel.  In the second half of the 19th century, American manufacturers produced a myriad of inexpensive silver-plated objects for the home.  Before this time, only the wealthy could afford hand-made sterling silver wares.  Now, the middle class could enjoy mass-produced silver-plated versions of the same objects.

Water pitchers as a form were not new, but manufacturers began to add metal and glass liners to help keep the water inside cold.  Most of the early liners had seams, which inevitably led to leaks and corrosion.  By the late 1870s, these were replaced with one-piece porcelain liners.  All of the early insulated water pitchers were unwieldy.  The solution was a tilting stand.  A period advertisement states that a tilting pitcher “enables the person to pour water from the pitcher without being compelled to lift it.”   Most were sold as matching sets with a stand, pitcher, at least one goblet, and a base, usually in the form of a tray, intended to catch any condensation. 

These sets were nearly always placed in one of two locations in the Victorian home: in the front hallway, to provide a cool drink for guests waiting to visit with members of the family or in the dining room to keep cold water available for meals.  Providing a tilting water set in the dining room or hallway communicated a sense of hospitality and asserted one’s social standing. 

The End of an Era

Surprisingly, the arrival of electrification and refrigeration in the early twentieth century did not immediately diminish the use of the tilting water pitchers. But with ice now plentiful, the heavily insulated liners found in models of the late 19th century were made thinner.  Of course, that made pitchers lighter, eliminating the need to hold the unwieldy pitcher steady. By the 1930s, when electric refrigerators became common in American homes, tilting sets were viewed as a Victorian curiosity – although the social custom of offering guests a “cold drink” continues to the present day.

-- Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts


A tilting water pitcher set in the Wright Home dining room in Greenfield Village. THF. 103969


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