This article focuses on the history, design, and functions of soup tureens. With usages ranging from a soup container at dinner parties to a practical vase, soup tureens were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. It originally appeared in the May 1940 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
Once again the tureen, after a long period of rest on the top shelf of the china closet, is making its appearance – not only as a convenient adjunct to the buffet supper, but also at its proper place on the table at luncheons and small dinners. Whatever may have caused this phenomenon, it is not to be denied that a handsome old tureen is a very decorative object. It is scarcely to be expected, however, that the vogue for using these articles will extend so far as to require two on the table at a time, a practice that was once quite general at parties during the latter years of the 18th and the first half of the 19th Centuries.
There is an account of a dinner given by President Washington at which three tureens were in evidence, and that this custom persisted for a long time is shown by Inquire Within, a quaint book of helpful household hints published in 1857, which states that “Soups or broth should always be placed at the head of the table; if there are two, top and bottom; if four, top, bottom, and two sides, opposite each other or alternately with fish. We may observe, that a white and brown, or a mild and a high-seasoned soup, should occupy either side of the center piece.”
Of course, these instructions pertained to setting the table for a dinner party and undoubtedly one soup sufficed for the regular family meal; but as a result of the custom of giving guests a choice, in Blue-Staffordshire days a dinner service was rarely considered complete unless it included two tureens. On the other hand, for use in the family circle a special development appeared in which the tureen proper, surrounded by smaller dishes, was mounted on a Lazy Susan, the whole intended for the center of the table. Since the rotating stand, as well as the other pieces, was of china or porcelain, complete examples of this combination are hard to find today.
But it is not to be supposed that the presence of more than two tureens at a dinner meant that more than two kinds of soup were offered. Two varieties were all that were ever served at one time and the extra containers were merely to insure a sufficient supply to go around without recourse to the kitchen. However, the rule to have soups of contrasting appearance and flavor was pretty generally observed. Brown soups were usually highly seasoned and their base was beef or, occasionally, game. Among the ancient recipes for them may be found Ox Cheek, Cow Heel, Plum Porridge, Mock Turtle, Partridge, and Brown Gravy soups. Cream was a necessary ingredient of all white soups and in this category Almond Soup and its variant, Soup Lorraine, seem to have been favorites.
Here are the instructions for making simple Almond Soup:
“Take a quart of almonds, and beat them in a marble mortar, with the yolks of 6 hard eggs, till they become a fine paste. Mix them by degrees with 2 quarts of new milk, a quart of cream, and a quarter pound of double refined sugar, beat fine, and stir the whole well together. When it is properly mixed, set it over a slow fire, and keep it stirring quick till you find it of a good thickness; then take it off, pour it into your dish, and serve it up. The principal care to be observed in making this soup is to prevent its curdling, which can only be done by keeping it constantly stirring till it boils.”
It seems doubtful if this recipe would be very acceptable today and probably Eel Soup, another of the white ones, would not be much better. However, White Onion, Rice, Macaroni, and Soup a la Reine would be found palatable although the last named often had almonds in it as an additional flavoring.
The word tureen is not an old term; it cannot be found, for instance, in most dictionaries printed before 1800. It arose through a misspelling in early cook books of “terrine,” an earthenware dish or vessel, and the corruption was perpetuated by an absurd story that it really came from Marshal Turenne who, it was said, once drank his soup from his helmet. But quite possibly the development of this article occurred in France, a great soup-eating country; at all events the tureen reached a more elaborate form there than anywhere else as is thoroughly evidenced by the richly ornamented examples of silver gilt, and combinations of ormolu and porcelain which date from the latter years of the 18th Century.
It would seem probable that true tureens, in distinction from large, covered bowls, were first made of pewter or silver and that the designs developed in metal were later adapted for the earthenware and porcelain articles. Hogarth’s series of prints entitled “Marriage a la Mode,” dated 1745, has never been challenged for the accuracy with which it depicts the manners and customs of upper-class English society of the period. In one of the pictures, Death of the Countess, appears what is undoubtedly a silver tureen, while near it on the table are its cover and ladle. It is merely a good-sized bowl, very like a large caudle cup, and doubtless illustrates the type of tureen then in regular use. By 1760, however, tureens had fully assumed their characteristic form and silver examples of this period are mainly oval in shape, supported on four feet, and they usually have a good deal of rococo decoration often enhanced with applied scrolls or foliage. A silver dish was invariably placed under the tureen and later this was sometimes permanently attached to it, but this style never became popular probably owing to the difficulty of cleaning.
By 1785, due to the influence of the Brothers Adam, silver tureens had assumed the very graceful form a variation of the neo-classical urn figure, known as the boat-shape. This style has angular or simple loop handles; the decoration is confined to delicate chasing with sometimes restrained ornament on the cover and the tureen is always supported on a low pedestal with an oval or square base. This fashion persisted until approximately 1810, after which there was a return to the earlier, rococo forms. Tureens of Sheffield plate, of pewter and, later, of britannia metal followed the silver designs. As far as is known, no American silversmith made tureens until after the Revolution.
The first true tureens of earthenware appeared about 1740; examples in salt glaze are known from 1750; and by 1760 the tureen was an established piece in English dinner services. The Worcester pottery probably began to produce them about that year and, presumably, the other British manufacturers did likewise. Undoubtedly, samples were quickly taken to China so that shortly tureens of Oriental Lowestoft, both with armorial decoration and other ornamentation, reached the European market. Even on some of these early Lowestoft tureens, the pig’s head handles are to be found, a feature which became practically standard on several of the later Chinese wares such as Canton. About the beginning of the 19th Century, beautiful tureens decorated with painted pictures and gold were produced at the Sevres pottery in France and the French styles were largely copied at Meissen and the other German potteries. Very fine and costly tureens, in the French and German manner, were also made at St. Petersburg in Russia.
The immense popularity in this country of Staffordshire china, from about 1820 to 1850, led to the importation of thousands of tureens produced by the potters in the neighborhood of Stoke-on-Trent and by the Herculaneum pottery in Liverpool which manufactured a similar ware. Blue was the favorite color and even today it is, perhaps, the lovely old blue Staffordshire tureen which is most admired.
Those with American views are, of course, the most desirable, although they are not necessarily the handsomest. All of them were originally accompanied by a dish or tray, intended to be placed beneath them, and by a ladle. In the case of American views the pictures on the two sides of the tureen, on the cover, on the tray and on the ladle were, as a rule, all different. Typical of this practice are the services known as “Beauties of America,” made by J. & W. Ridgway, and “Hudson River Scenes,” by Enoch Wood. In fact, only four dinner sets carrying a single view throughout are listed: “Landing of the Pilgrims” (Wood), “Landing of Lafayette” (Clews), “The Residence of the Late Richard Jordan, New Jersey” (Heath) and “Boston State House” (Rogers).
Early Staffordshire tureens were, apparently, all oval in shape; the round ones and those of octagonal form – that is, with three-sided ends as may be found in Canton and other Chinese patterns – seem not to have been produced until the advent of stoneware. To the latter date also belong those tureens in which the trays are permanently fastened to the base of the tureen proper, a design which was used occasionally by many different potteries. Incidentally, it may be said that but few tureens were produced in the United States before 1850; Bennington made some, but that pottery seems to have been alone in the field here.
In the 1820-1850 period, the great bulk of the china used in this country was, of course, the product of the Staffordshire potteries. But printed ware was comparatively expensive, not everyone could afford it, and for general consumption the English potters produced a cheaper earthenware which was commonly cream-colored without decoration or else decorated with a simple colored band around the edges.
In 1827 the owners of the good ship Marion of Portsmouth, N. H., instructed her captain to procure one hundred cases of assorted earthenware from an agent of the Staffordshire potteries in Liverpool as part of her homeward-bound cargo. A list, which is still in existence, was prepared giving general advice regarding the articles to be obtained and fortunately it reveals not only the types of tureens desired, but also the proportions wanted of each type.
Thus there were to be six printed tureens, complete with ladles and trays, to be of “some handsome pattern, deep blue” and “12 edg’d Soup Tureens, 11 inch,” of which one-third were to have a green edge and the remainder a dark blue one. No cream-colored tureens were included, but twenty-eight dozen soup plates of that description appeared and similarly eight dozen soup plates of the ever-popular willow pattern were specified without tureens to go with them. Undoubtedly these plates were intended as dealers’ stock against replacement orders. It may be observed that apparently a distinction was made between the shades of deep blue and dark blue and, since decoration in light blue, pink and brown did not begin on Staffordshire ware until 1830, these colors did not appear on the list.
Tureens with armorial decoration are frequently very impressive objects. The finest seem to be those made in the closing years of the 18th-Century by the Worcester pottery. In. fact, it is generally held that the most notable of the products of the Worcester Royal Pottery Works during that period were the “Armorial” dinner services made for various royal and noble families of England.
Excellent tureens of this type were also made on the Continent and, of course, others were produced in China, which latter are, perhaps, the articles of this description most often encountered. But as a rule the arms and crests as painted on Oriental Lowestoft by the pottery decorators in Canton are stiff copies of European engravings and so their armorial tureens do not compare in an artistic sense with the similar products of, for instance, Worcester. However, the Chinese were working with designs which were strange to them and not understood; consequently it is not surprising that they were more successful with other forms of decoration and there are many Lowestoft tureens which are most attractive.
Occasionally, prior to 1850, individuals brought soup tureens to this country from various Continental cities as, for example, Chancellor Livingston brought home a French silver one which he acquired in Paris and which is now in the Museum of the City of New York. But as far as commercial importation was concerned, up to that date all such articles were either Chinese – that is, Oriental Lowestoft or Nankin and other blue and white wares – or the product of the English potteries.
Probably all the leading British firms sent tureens to the American market and it would appear that those made at the Derby pottery – the most important in England in the last quarter of the 18th-Century –were very popular here, especially those decorated in blue and gold. The tureens of Queen’s ware manufactured at Leeds were also favorites. In this connection it may be said that practically all tureens with armorial decoration now in this country, no matter from what original source, have been imported within comparatively recent years.
No article of a dinner service so lends itself to ornamentation as the tureen. It is the largest and most important piece and this fact has been fully taken advantage of by the manufacturers. The results in silver are too well known to need comment; body, base, cover, handles, knobs, in fact every conceivable part has been elaborated in every possible way at different times.
As far as the china articles are concerned, undoubtedly the most ornate were those produced at Sevres where the art of painting scenes, figures, birds and flowers on porcelain reached its greatest perfection. The Sevres style was copied in nearly every corner of Europe, but the French technique was rarely equalled. Of course many of the extraordinary Sevres pieces were produced more as works of art than as commercial articles; for example, the pottery made a magnificent commemorative dinner service for Napoleon after nearly every one of his major victories.
From a practical point of view, the use of a tureen on the table, at least for small parties or for the family meal, has much to recommend it. For fish chowders, oyster stews and similar dishes, where one often wishes a second helping, it is particularly appropriate and thin, clear soups, which cool rapidly, are more apt to reach the guests hot if served at the table unless the operation takes too long.
Incidentally, it is often said that Julien, the famous chef whose grave is in King’s Chapel burying ground in Boston, invented the clear soup. But clear soups were known long before his time, although he was undoubtedly the originator of the particular, well-known variety which bears his name.
In fact, there were several methods in use for obtaining a clear stock during the 18th-Century. An old cook book recommends the following procedure:
“Take a Knuckle of Veal, and three or four pounds of lean Beef, some Mace, and whole Pepper, to which put six quarts of Water and a little Salt. Boil to a mummy, take off the Scum quite clean, then put in six large Onions, two Carrots, a head or two of Celery, a Parsnip, one Leek, and a little Thyme. When it is quite stewed down, strain it through a Hair Sieve, or pour it into a Towel held by two Persons over a Pan or Dish. After it has stood about one-half an hour, skim it well and put your strained Soup into your Soup Pot.” This recipe furnished the stock employed as the base for many of the old-time white soups.
Besides their employment on the table, tureens today are being used frequently to hold flowers, a practice which seems to be an excellent way – and often an effective one – of displaying an otherwise seldom seen and perhaps much-prized possession. Actually, it would appear to be as legitimate to use one for this purpose as a pitcher; but it cannot be recommended that a tureen be pressed into service as a vase on one day, as a punch bowl on the next, and then as a soup container on the third, at least not with the same guests each day.
As far as ladles are concerned, the designs of the silver ones followed as closely as possible the shapes of the spoons of the corresponding periods, and naturally those of pewter did likewise. It would appear that the Staffordshire potters were the first to produce china ladles to match their tureens: certainly they were the first to do so as a standard item. But the mortality rate for such an article was extremely high and as a consequence soup ladles are usually the most difficult pieces to find in attempting to assemble a complete service. Thus an example of the ladle belonging to the Syntax set, one of the Literary series produced by Clews, has never been found.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.