Ann Arbor is home to one of the largest outdoor art fairs in the country, an event that townies either love or hate. I personally love it and have been to many an artist’s booth over the years. And there are few things more irritating to overhear than someone remarking, often in the artist’s presence, that they—or their kid!—could make that same piece of art. Yeah.
As many of us know, anything can look easy, especially when watching a highly skilled craftsperson or artist at work, until you try it yourself! Therefore, having done a little hammered copper work many years ago, I always love seeing—and especially appreciate—a hammered metal piece, such as this vintage teapot.
Forbes SPCO Teapot
This Forbes SPCO 735 teapot has much to commend it. It is graceful in form, with lovely proportions. Hand hammered and handmade, its welds are clean and precise, the hinge works flawlessly, and the cover fits extremely well.
I love this particular attention to detail: there is a small metal half-ball on the handle. When you open the cover, a decorative element of the hinge rests on this ball so that the lid doesn’t hit the handle. The clearance between handle and lid is enough to slip a piece of paper in, but nothing thicker!
Notice, too, the clean weld that affixes handle to body.
The makers mark, featuring an upturned eagle head, is cleanly stamped on the pot’s bottom.
Why Silver Teapots?
As we know, tea began in China, where it was brewed in clay and porcelain. When Europeans finally encountered tea, it was something totally new to them, so of course they didn’t have teapots.
Therefore, in the 1600s, Europeans imported Yixing teapots and they used Chinese wine ewers as teapots, either because they didn’t know these were meant for wine or simply because they were expedient. Below is an example of a 1690s pot that was more likely an ewer but was used as a teapot in the west (courtesy Shirley M. Mueller).
Europeans also tried making their own teapots, but because they didn’t know how to make porcelain, they turned to a familiar metal: silver.
Early versions either copied the shape of coffeepots, which ended up being awkward for tea, or the shape of Chinese Yixing pots, rounded and more squat (Mueller 2005). Silver, unfortunately, was expensive, so westerners continued to look toward China for the porcelain that mesmerized with its unique properties. Silver never went away, however, and silversmiths in Europe and America crafted beautiful tea ware for centuries.
Why Silver-plated Teapots?
Although it’s said that after WW2, many people turned to silver-plated items as an affordable way to set an elegant table, these less expensive items had been available for decades. Forbes Silver Company, established in Connecticut in 1894, made many small silver-plated toiletry and household items aimed at female consumers (ADC 2/7/21), in addition to their sterling silver pieces. When International Silver took Forbes over in 1898, these affordable pieces continued to be made and marketed.
Electroplating, developed in 1805 by chemist Luigi V. Brugnatelli, deposits a layer of the desired metal over a base metal. For silver-plating, pure or sterling silver is layered over such metals as copper, brass, nickel silver (copper, zinc, nickel), or Britannia metal (a pewter alloy). The material value, therefore, is very low when compared to a piece made entirely of sterling silver, and this makes such items affordable for more people, including today. With beautiful designs and a polished silver surface, a silver-plated teapot could easily stand in for one of sterling silver.
Still, when I study my plated teapot, it’s amazing to me that so much time, effort, and skill went into making an item that was never worth all that much money-wise. Was labor that cheap? Or could these pots be made so quickly that volume made up the difference?
Silver-plate or Silver-tone?
Although silver-plated generally means a coating of sterling silver over a base metal, we can’t assume an item is necessarily sterling silver-plated. Yes, if isn’t specifically stamped “sterling” or its equivalent, we know that an item is plated. But plated with what?
As a contributor on Silver Collector Forum (2013) noted, he had his Forbes piece tested and it was determined that it’s “NOT silver plate but a silver alloy of an unknown silver content, not necessarily sterling.” In 2018, Live Auctioneers listed the same teapot as mine, describing it as silver-toned:
Vintage possibly Antique, Hand forged, hand made, FORBES SPCO 735 Silver Toned Metal Teapot, possible silver plate
Safe to Use?
Beautiful, yes; functional, yes; safe, well. . . .
If the silver coating is intact, the metal would be considered safer than if it’s been worn down to the base metal. The weld of the spout to body as well as the base metal can potentially be problematic. If the base metal is an alloy, its possible that it contains antimony, lead, tin, and/or cadmium.
For example, a 1995 study (Capar) found that lead did leach out of hollow silver-plated items (7 mg/L)—although the level paled in comparison to that from the tested “ceramicware tea set” at 86 mg/L or “teapots” (presumably ceramic) at 237 mg/L!
To keep things in perspective, this particular study was targeting ceramic ware that (a) screening tests had already shown to be problematic, or (b) contained certain colors, or (c) came from companies that had previous problems, so the sample will obviously be weighted toward contaminated items. None of the top 1993–1994 offenders, including those “ceramicware tea set” and “teapots,” were made in the U.S.; the study didn’t say where the silver-plated hollow ware was produced.
Although this is just one study, and because it also tested food products, it was more of a survey than an in-depth analysis. Still, it’s something to consider if you’re using vintage tea ware, metal or ceramic. And since my teapot is silver-toned and not necessarily silver-plated, it will remain decorative.
If you have a sterling silver teapot (rather than a plated one), it—like porcelain, glass, and china—is inert and should not impact the flavor of the tea.
However, silver does retain heat well. Thus, that sustained heat may well have some effect on your tea because that heat will keep extracting flavor to a greater extent, for a longer period of time, as compared to tea brewed in, say, a glass teapot that quickly starts cooling down during the brewing precess.
Char, of Oolong Owl, did a detailed comparison a few years ago, finding that tea did indeed taste different when brewed in a silver teapot (check out her post here). As many of us tea lovers know, matching the tea to the teapot and the drinking vessel is part of the whole tea experience, and we often find we have a favorite pairing!
In the End
Don’t we always sort of hope that when we pick up some trifle at a thrift store or auction, we’ll discover that it has great worth?
Well, that hasn’t happened to me yet, and this plated teapot certainly is worth little in terms of money. Still, its pleasing design, coupled with my appreciation for its fine construction, makes this teapot worthy of display.
–ADC Staff, “Forbes Silver Co. design catalogues and historical documentation,” ArtDesignCafé, 2/7/21.
–Capar, S. G., “Lead in food—occurrence and analytical methodology,” Proceedings, Second National Conference . . ., May 18–20, 1995, Atlanta, Georgia.
–Live Auctioneers, “Forbes SPCO 735 silver toned metal teapot,” 2/21/18.
–Mueller, S. M., “17th century Chinese export teapots,” Orientations 36(7). 2005.
–Silver Collection, “American silver plate marks,” accessed 4/16/21.
–Silver Collector Forums, “Forbes Silver Company Help,” 12/2013.
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