The Boston & Sandwich Tea Party

By Elizabeth Caroscio

Perhaps the biggest innovation in glass technology since the Roman invention of blown glass around 50 BCE happened in late 1820s America, when the glass press was introduced and became a critical component of the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The LSU Museum of Art owns a collection of several dozen pressed glass cup plates. These teeny-tiny plates are not dollhouse furnishings, as one might imagine, but rather were made to accommodate the tea-drinking tradition of pouring tea into a saucer from a cup and then drinking directly from the saucer. This practice served to cool tea quicker, and also introduced a new item to the tea service. The tea cup could be placed upon one’s cup plate, so that the liquid would not drip onto a fine linen tablecloth[1].

(click to enlarge) 

Possibly Boston & Sandwich Glass Company, Cup Plate, ca. 1830, pressed glass, 3 3/8 inches, Gift of Polly Gibbs, LSU MOA 87.18.2.

 Duncan Phyfe (American, born Scotland, 1768-1854).  Chair, One from a Set of 10 , 1816. Mahogany, watered damask, height of back: 23 1/4 in. (59.1 cm). Brooklyn Museum, H. Randolph Lever Fund, 67.19.2. Creative Commons-BY (Photo:  Brooklyn Museum , 67.19.2_bw_IMLS.jpg)

Duncan Phyfe (American, born Scotland, 1768-1854). Chair, One from a Set of 10, 1816. Mahogany, watered damask, height of back: 23 1/4 in. (59.1 cm). Brooklyn Museum, H. Randolph Lever Fund, 67.19.2. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 67.19.2_bw_IMLS.jpg)

While many cup plates have patriotic motifs, the design on this particular example is whimsical, with a pair of hearts displayed in the center. Lyres on the four sides are associated with the neoclassical style, which at the time was prevalent in American decorative arts. It is easy to see how this cup plate would have been in harmony with the overall neoclassical design of the home it was purchased to reside in when compared to neoclassical furniture made around the same period, such as this well-known Duncan Phyfe example which also features a lyre. 

The tiny dots covering the surface of the cup plate are referred to as stippling, and are typical of the lacy pressed style. Stippling serves to cover the chill marks which form when hot glass comes into contact with the colder mold of the glass press. Stylistically, the goal of lacy pressed glass was to confuse the untrained eye into thinking that pressed glass was cut; and therefore more expensive.

Boston & Sandwich Glass Company certainly made a large number of cup plates. The earliest record of a pressed glass cup plate manufactured at an American glasshouse was recorded in their 1827 record books[2]. Cup plates were popular up until the American Civil War, when they virtually disappeared from tea services[3]. Today, tea drinking status symbols generally consist of Starbucks to-go cups, but in early nineteenth century America wealth was conveyed by spending money on a variety of table items which were each used for one very specific purpose, such as cup plates. 

Elizabeth Caroscio is LSU MOA's assistant registrar.


[1] Arlene Palmer, Glass in Early America: Selections from the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum (Winterthur, DE: Winterthur Museum, 1993), 122-123.

[2]Kenneth M. Wilson, American Glass: 1760 - 1930 (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1994), 274.

[3] Palmer, Glass in Early America: Selections from the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 122.