By Emily Finan
This week’s object from our collection is a peculiar little teapot. Received as a gift from Isabelle Bevier Cornell in 1989, this intricate teapot functions far beyond a task of holding tea; it provides a lesson of biblical morality to its drinker, which demonstrates the contemporary values of American society at the time of its creation.
The teapot is approximately 7 inches in height, has a ten sided shape with a high inset lid and a flower head finial with high relief ornamentation on the spout and handle. Its unique composition of yellow earthenware with a mottled brown, tortoiseshell glaze lends credibility to the supposition that it is a Rockingham ware piece. Rockingham ware is characterized as “highly fired earthenware or stoneware, generally with a buff to yellow paste and a brown mottled and streaked glaze, often characterized by patches of the vessel’s body showing through.” This distinct style did not originate in America, however, but is a product of England. The term itself is derived from the late 18th century as a way to describe a dark brown glaze created by potters in Yorkshire, England, working at the estate of the Marquis of Rockingham. The style emigrated to America with designers such as Edwin Bennett, who left East Liverpool in 1844 and moved to Birmingham, Pennsylvania with his three brothers, where he formed their company, E.&W. Bennett. It is highly likely that this teapot is a product of the E.&W. Bennett company because an identical teapot that also bears the same biblical iconography, resides in The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The matching teapot in Houston was modeled by Charles Coxon, who worked for E.&W. Bennett, which increases the likelihood that the piece we have here at Huguenot Street is a product of Coxon as well. Although the glaze of the teapot is highly alluring, what is even more fascinating is the iconography represented and the symbolism it connotes.
The iconography represented on the teapot is the image of Rebekah at the Well, described in the Old Testament. In the biblical account, Abraham sent a servant to find his son, Isaac, a suitable wife. The servant came upon the beautiful virgin Rebekah gathering water at a well, as depicted on the teapot. The servant was sure she was sent from God himself because she was both beautiful and generous, graciously giving the servant and his camels an abundant supply of water from the well. The moment depicted on the teapot of Rebekah gathering water at the well, is a curious image to depict on a household object. The feminine association of the teapot, however, may provide insight to the decision to include such biblical imagery, while also revealing contemporary gender identity.
Strong gender identifications permeated the late nineteenth century American domestic sphere, specifically in the act of serving and consuming tea. In virtually every representation of a tea party, women are shown as the pourers. The act of pouring tea exemplifies the ways in which women were expected to serve men, which was conceived to be a “virtual extension of one’s womanhood.” It is, therefore, by no coincidence that the image of Rebekah at the Well would resonate well with contemporary religious women. The presence of this biblical iconography would encourage women to reflect the “true womanhood”, exemplified by Rebekah, of “piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity.” Through the act of pouring water and serving others, women could feel a connection to Rebekah, the ideal woman. For example, “the woman at home serving liquid refreshments to others could pour from the teapot bearing the image of Rebekah, who also served liquid refreshment and who, representing submissiveness to God’s will and the needs of man- and also purity, being chosen by God- was the ultimate example of the True Woman.” The teapot’s biblical iconography is, thus, tremendously purposeful in perpetuating gender identity by encouraging women of this time to emulate the biblical iconography that equates womanhood with serving men. The visual presence of the Rebekah teapot in the domestic space would function as a reminder to women to remain pious and maintain a religious home. In this way, the furnishings within a home were thought to contribute to the religious well-being of the family, which is conveyed impeccably by Protestant theologian, Horace Bushell’s, statement that “religion never thoroughly penetrates life, til it becomes domestic.” Through the act of observing the Rebekah teapot, one gains insight into the deeply ingrained religious ideas and ideals of the late nineteenth century. A seemingly banal teapot actually functions in a social role that is far more extensive than its utilitarian purpose; it serves to define contemporary gender roles and stratification through a biblical lens. By portraying the image of a woman who presents ideal Christian morals on a frequently used object, one is able to see how objects themselves move beyond their original function and, through the use of purposeful ornamentation, lends insight to their contemporary world.
Claney, Jane Perkins. Rockingham Ware in American Culture, 1830-1930: Reading Historical Artifacts. New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2004.
“’Fancy Rockingham’ Pottery: The Modeller and Ceramics in Nineteenth-Century America, September 9, 2004 to February 27, 2005.” Trenton Potteries vol. 5, issue 2, June 2004. Accessed April 5, 2017.
Goldberg, Arthur F. “Highlights in the Development of the Rockingham and Yellow Ware Industry in the United States- A Brief Review with Representative Examples.” Chipstone, 2003. Accessed April 5, 2017.
Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. “Rockingham Ware.” Accessed April 5, 2017.
Strauss, Richard L. “Talk to Me- The Story of Isaac and Rebekah.” June 28, 2004. Accessed April 5, 2017.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “E. & W. Bennett Teapot.” Accessed April 5, 2017.