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The Center of Attention:  Epergnes and Centerpieces in American Entertaining

December 12, 2014

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During the Holiday Nights program in Greenfield Village, we strive to recreate authentic interiors and seasonal celebrations of the American past.  With the holidays rapidly approaching we are setting our dining tables for Christmas and New Year’s Eve and think it is a good time to examine the evolution of festive table settings in times past. Of course, the focus of table decoration is the centerpiece and these have a long and interesting history.

Going all the way back to the European middle-ages and the Renaissance, average folks didn’t entertain. The earliest centerpieces were made for royalty and they were created to show off the wealth and good taste of the owner and to dispense delicacies, such as expensive spices and salts, imported from the Far East on sailing ships. These early centerpieces literally took the form of sailing ships, usually were made of silver and called Nefs. They were the exclusive domain of European royalty and nobility from the 1400s into the early 17th century. By the late 1700s, silversmiths working for King Louis XIV of France developed a particular take on the centerpiece called a Surtout-de-Table.  Much like Nefs, these raised centerpieces were intended to provide an elegant focal point for table, where spices and other condiments were held.  Sometimes, these Surtouts held candles to provide a convivial atmosphere for the diners.

In the early 18th century, these Surtouts made their way from France to England via French protestant silversmiths fleeing religious persecution.  Several of these craftsmen came to America. The most well-known of these was a man named Apollos Riviere, who anglicized his name to Paul Revere.  Revere’s son, Paul Revere II was the famous patriot. Known as Hugenots, these French-trained craftsmen transformed the Surtouts into what we call Epergnes. "Epergne" is probably derived from the French word "épargne" meaning "saving" – as diners were spared the effort of passing dishes as many foods were centralized via the epergne. In England, these ostentatious centerpieces became popular with the aristocracy and gained widespread appeal by the middle of the century. They also shifted function, holding sweetmeats and fruits during the dessert course. By the end of the century they became more popular with a broader public and were produced by entrepreneurial craftsmen in less expensive materials such as Britannia (a pewter-type alloy favored for its silvery appearance) with serving bowls made of glass, many made in Irish factories.

Epergnes made their way to America during the 18th century through craftsmen such as the Reveres and via objects imported from England. This dovetailed with a change in serving styles in America at the end of the century. During the colonial era the serving style was “everything on the table”, which left little to no space for an elaborate centerpiece. After the Revolution Americans moved to service a la Russe, where dishes of food were banished from the table - diners were brought hot dishes directly from the kitchen by servants. An alternative could be service from sideboards, which appeared in American dining rooms in the 1790s. This left room on the table for centerpieces and even grander arrangements known as Plateaus. We know that many of America’s founding fathers entertained using these Plateaus, essentially pyramidal arrangements of serving vessels festooned with garlands of foliage and flowers, culminating in an elaborately decked-out Epergne at the center.

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A good example of a Plateau and an Epergne can be seen in the dining room of the Susquehanna Plantation during Holiday Nights. The Epergne was made in Birmingham England by the firm of Matthew Boulton in 1808, with inset glass bowls made by Waterford Glass Works in Ireland. It is typical of the types of Epergnes used by middle and upper class Americans in the early to mid-19th century. We arranged it to celebrate a holiday wedding, complete with a wedding cake topping the Epergne.

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The Susquehanna Plantation House, from Saint Mary’s County, Maryland is interpreted to the late 1850s. The Carroll Family, owners of the Plantation were comfortably well off, yet not ostentatious in their furnishings. What may appear lavish to us, was a typical holiday display of the period.

As the nineteenth century progressed, Epergnes became common in middle class American homes. Their shapes evolved away from silver and other metals, into blown and pressed glass objects that continued to hold delicacies and spices, but also could hold flowers. By 1900 many Epergnes were produced exclusively for floral displays. Of course, they also continued the long-standing tradition of elegant centerpieces. Today, many people associate Epergnes with those made during the 19th century, unaware of the long and colorful history of the form.

Charles Sable is Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. 

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