25 April 2011

Mystery Object No. 4 - the Solution

This week, we asked you to guess what this object would have been used for in the eighteenth century:

Hot water urn, c.1790 (c) Geffrye Museum, London
When first seeing this object in the Geffrye Museum, we did something of a double take. It looks familiar – rather like a sporting trophy – yet the tap sticking out of it would suggest that it is intended for something quite different.

It is, in fact, a hot water urn, to be used to replenish a teapot without the need to interrupt a tea party by calling for a servant, made in around 1790.

When tea first started to be drunk in English homes from the late 1600s, it was hugely expensive. In the 1690s, the Countess of Argyll paid over £10 for 6 ounces of tea. That’s £26 per pound, at a time when her estate’s lawyer earned £20 a year.

Given the expense and mystique of the imported oriental leaf, tea was not kept in the kitchen stores but in the mistress’s closet in a locked canister or caddy. When tea was to be drunk, it would not be prepared in the kitchen, but in the room in which it was to be served. Servants would bring the required equipment to the room, and the lady or gentleman of the house would brew the tea and serve it to their guests or family.

Hence the need for our hot water urn; a servant would deliver the crucial supply of boiling water and pour it into an appropriate vessel, to be used as required.

See the real thing in the Geffrye Museum, in Information Bay 4.

For more on the history of tea in English homes, look out for our digital story, which will be available on the Geffrye Museum website from early May.

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