Examining the social and economic context of The Henry Ford's rare Paul Revere teapot. Other examples can be seen in some of the country's premier art museums. THF 166148
Today, coffee and tea are enjoyed by millions of people, including blog readers. While connoisseurs of these beverages take their enjoyment very seriously, the relative affordability of these caffeinated drinks means that almost anyone can “benefit” from a caffeine boost and also enjoy their flavors. The resulting billion-dollar industries help power the world economy – and its workforce.
America has an especially close relationship with these drinks, one that dates back to before the country was formed. In modern times, coffee has dominated American tastes, but until the 20th century, Americans favored tea. Although still popular, tea drinking in America can be traced back to trade with China by Dutch merchants in the early 1600s.
Today, fast-paced Americans prefer their caffeinated beverages on the go, often consuming them from disposable drinkware. This is in marked contrast to colonial America, where these beverages would have been served from vessels made to impress and consumed as part of elaborate entertainments expressing the host’s good taste. THF 102595
Dutch traders not only introduced Chinese tea to their colony in present-day New York, but also introduced it to Europe. The hot drink quickly rose in popularity and by the end of the 1600s, tea became the most favored hot beverage in Britain. To support the mass consumption by its citizens at home and in its colonies, England became heavily involved in the China trade and the importation of tea.
As social customs evolved around the drinking of tea, so did the equipment used to consume the beverage. Wealthy citizens could afford to have their teapots fashioned in silver and silversmiths in the colonies, like Paul Revere, learned how to create silver designs from imported English examples. Son of Apollos Rivoire, a French immigrant and Boston silversmith, Paul Revere got his start as his father's apprentice.
Pictured here, an English teakettle-on-stand. Paul Revere imitated designs from English silver objects and pattern books in order to create silver in the most fashionable styles. THF 155178
After his father died in 1754, Revere started his career producing a wide variety of silver objects, including elaborate teapots for his wealthier clients. By the 1760s, the colonies faced increased taxation as England attempted to pay off their war debt from the French and Indian War. High taxes on imports like tea angered colonists, resulting in boycotts that affected what Revere could produce as a silversmith.
These taxes led Revere to join a resistance group known as the "Sons of Liberty" whose members included some of his customers angered by the increased taxation. The organization helped fuel anti-British sentiment in the colonies and Revere aided the groups’ cause by printing propaganda that provoked colonist anger towards the Crown.
As a member of the Sons of Liberty, Paul Revere helped energize the movement toward American independence by printing illustrations like this one of the Boston Massacre. An active citizen, he was part of numerous other civic organizations. THF 8141
In 1773, with tensions mounting, Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty protested England's control over the tea trade by boarding recently docked British tea ships in the Boston harbor and dumping some of their tea chests overboard. The British responded to the event, known as the Boston Tea Party, by shutting the port of Boston and stripping the Massachusetts colony of its right to self-government.
War erupted in 1775 when Britain moved to seize the colonists' gunpowder and firearms outside of Boston. Revere made his famous midnight ride during this time to warn some of his fellow patriots that the British were on their way to arrest them. While patriot duties limited Paul Revere's silversmithing during the Revolutionary War, he returned to his craft as the war came to an end in the 1780s.
Post-war American silver customers preferred the neoclassical design that became popular in Europe during the war. In the years before the War, silver customers had preferred the Rococo style, an aesthetic known for its ornate decorations and curvilinear body designs. In contrast, neoclassical silver celebrated the classical style of Greece and Rome, making use of symmetry, hard lines, and an emphasis on simple forms. As a master craftsman, Revere developed an elegant and personal interpretation of the neoclassical style.
This 1782 teapot shows Revere’s experimentation with the neoclassical style.
The neoclassical teapot shown above was created in 1782 by Revere. Only six teapots featuring this cylindrical body are known to exist and were some of the last that Revere hand-forged, hammering or "raising" them up from a block of silver. In 1785 Revere acquired silver rolling machinery that he used to produce silver sheets. These sheets were cut to form standardized pieces and allowed Revere's shop to produce silver products more quickly. An example of a Revere teapot made from this later method can be seen in our collections here.
On the bottom of the 1782 teapot, the clear markings of Revere are stamped next to a monogram that can be attributed to Joseph and Sarah Henshaw of Boston. THF 166147
With the assistance of the Massachusetts Historical Society, home of the Revere Family Papers, Revere's own record books identified Joseph Henshaw as the patron for this teapot. The records show that on February 22, 1782 Paul Revere made a note that he needed to make a teapot and spoons for Joseph Henshaw. By April 27, 1782 it appears that Revere had completed the order and marked the weight of the teapot as "16-17". This weight of "16-17" can be seen scratched on the bottom of the teapot in the upper right of the picture above.
Joseph Henshaw was a prominent Boston merchant. With his wife Sarah, the two used their home to help plan further American resistance by occasionally hosting "Sons of Liberty" meetings. It was his membership in this radical group that led Joseph Henshaw to form a friendship with Paul Revere. While this teapot is a good representation of the tea culture that existed in the colonies, it is also a symbol of Revere and Henshaw's relationship, a relationship that helped establish the United States of America.
See more on Paul Revere's life from our Digital Collections in this expert set.
Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.