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"From Tankards to Teacups: The Art of Serving Beverages in Early America"
2003-01-14 until 2003-03-30
Biggs Museum of American Art
Dover, DE, USA United States of America

Since colonial times beer, tea, whiskey and wine have factored into the fabric of American customs and culture. Early colonists found water mistrustful; if alive today our forebearers would be shocked to see so many progeny toting tinted plastic bottles of "designer" water. One historian notes that the "Pilgrims" landed at the particular site of "Plymouth Rock," because of a shortage of beer. One of the first buildings erected was a brew house. Advertisements in the English press followed for "brew masters" to make the journey to the Americas. Drinking water could produce illness and even death, but the boiling of beer killed bacteria. Ale, beer, and later homemade wine, whiskey and imported tea were all beverages that people consumed from cradle to grave.

When tea met boiling water in China in 2737 BC, a revolution began that spread to Europe, Great Britain, and finally, the colonies in the 1600s. Legend says that the Emperor of China, Shen Nung, discovered the drink when a few leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant fell into an open pot of boiling water. Extensive ceremonies surrounding the serving and drinking of tea developed in all cultures and the health benefits of a soothing "cuppa" still are extolled. School children in America today are familiar with the role tea played in the Revolutionary War; colonists protested the British tea tax with the famous Boston Tea Party.

But, what of the vessels that were used to serve, store, and imbibe all these liquids, hot and cold? The Biggs Museum of American Art looks at some of these fascinating objects in the exhibition From Tankards to Teacups: The Art of Serving Beverages in Early America on view January 15 through March 30, 2003. Containers crafted between the early 1700s and the mid-1800s included objects made from ceramic, glass, and silver. Colonial Americans mixed all manner of objects together for their many beverages. Not until the late 1700s did more specialized forms such as matching tea sets and wine goblets appear.

Tankards were often communal drinking vessels for ale, cider, beer and even wine. To own one made of silver was a sign of wealth and status for its owner. On view at the Biggs Museum is the large, remarkable and very heavy example created by noted Philadelphia silversmith Joseph Richardson.

The exhibition will focus on many forms not found today, including the posset pot. Named for a popular concoction of warm ale, wine, eggs, sugar, spices and cream, and sometimes, a bit of gruel, the ceramic posset pot, frequently was imported from England or Holland. Remarkable works of art, the Biggs examples are painted with floral forms in blue on a white background in imitation of Chinese Ming decoration.

Vessels for serving and drinking tea, coffee, and wine, many borrowed from private collections, will be showcased in the exhibition, which looks not only at the different forms and materials used but also at the technologies which influenced design and function. Social customs involved with entertaining and serving various beverages also played a major role in the development of ewers, pots, and glassware.

A series of programs ranging from an opening party with the Dogfish Head Brewery’s beverages to an Afternoon Tea Party for mothers and daughters accompanies the exhibition.

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