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Classic Tea Service, ca. 1790

Artist: Abraham DuBois, American, ca. 1751-1807

Medium: Silver

Credit Line: Gift of Mrs. C. M. Gooch

Object Number: 67.16.1-3

On View

Mrs. Cecil M. Gooch, Memphis, Tennessee, 1967

This Neoclassical tea service, made in Philadelphia by Abraham Dubois between about 1785 and 1795, was greatly influenced by important social, technological, and stylistic changes in late-18th-century America. Increased formality in social life altered the manner in which tea was consumed. Long a daily activity, serving tea was transformed among the well-to-do elite into an ordered ritual requiring special equipment. Matched tea services such as this one, consisting of three or more pieces, became fashionable and replaced the casually assembled group of individually designed pieces previously used to serve tea.


Technological innovations of the early Industrial Revolution affected the way in which the service was made. Dubois, rather than laboriously flattening and shaping a lump of silver by hand as earlier silversmiths had, was able to purchase long, thin pieces of silver already mechanically flattened by a power-driven rolling mill, recently developed in England. He then cut and bent these to shape, seamed them together, and decorated them with applied strips of mass-produced beading and pierced gallery.


Neoclassicism, embraced in England in the early 1760s, was only adopted in the United States some twenty years later, after the turbulence that reached its climax in the American Revolution. At that time, the ornate, playful Rococo style was supplanted by the restrained, sometimes austere new style that emphasized reason, order, and simplicity—the fundamental principles of the ancient Roman Republic so admired by the Enlightenment and the founders of the new nation. Dubois modeled his teapot and sugar basin on the Roman urn, the defining Neoclassical form, and the cream pitcher on the inverted helmet of a Roman warrior. Also typical of the new style are the square bases; the plain, smooth surfaces decorated only with delicate beading outlining geometrical units; and the lightly engraved symmetrical cartouche containing the owner’s initials, JEK. The architectural pierced gallery of the teapot and sugar basin is a feature found only on Neoclassical silver made in the Philadelphia area.