Collections › MESDA Collection › Coffeepot


Petrie, Alexander
Place Made:
Charleston South Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
silver –silver, with wooden handle
HOA: 10-3/8″; WOA (handle to spout) 8-11/16″
Accession Number:
DESCRIPTION: Silver coffeepot cylindrical in shape with a tapering form (wide at bottom and narrow at top). Unlike most silver hollowware created during the eighteenth century, which was raised (hammered up) from a disc, the body of this coffeepot is constructed from sheet silver and joined in a vertical seam (at the handle), a technique that did not become standard in American silver until the nineteenth century. The lid has a large cast hinge attached to the top handle socket. The round base is molded and soldered to the body. Cast elements include the lid hinge, handle sockets, bell-shaped finial, and leaf-capped swan-necked spout. The ear-shaped handle is possibly made from fruitwood. The weight of 31-1/2 ounces is scratched on the bottom of base. The body, lid, and spout are decorated in repousse with rococo designs of swags, flowers, and shells
The coffeepot is one of four known by Alexander Petrie, all of them virtually identical in size, shape, and fittings, except that the others are plain (see Acc. 2507), with none of the vibrant repousse decoration seen here. This is one of only a very few surviving examples of silver made in the colonial South that features repousse decoration (see also Acc. 2506).

MARK: Struck four times on underside of base with intaglio “AP” mark in a rectangular reserve.

MAKER: Alexander Petrie (c.1707-1768) was first identified as a Charleston, South Carolina silversmith in the December 1742 will of Richard Woodard but he had probably been working in the city for at least a few years. Petrie first advertised as a goldsmith in a 1745 Charleston newspaper. He was married three years later to Elizabeth Holland, “an agreeable Lady, of great Merit.” Petrie made silver wares at his bench and also imported silver goods from London, advertising in 1761 that he had just received a “neat assortment of the most useful goldsmith’s, silversmith’s, and jeweler’s work.” Petrie retired in July 1765, keeping his silversmithing tools but selling the stock of his shop to fellow Charleston silversmith Jonathan Sarrazin (w. 1754-c. 1790). Petrie’s retirement was most likely due to the wealth he had accumulated through his craft and land speculation. He had begun to purchase property on East Bay in 1750 and in 1767 he purchased the entire property between Broad and Tradd Streets known as the “Orange Garden,” broke it up into twelve parcels and developed the area. After Petrie’s death in 1768, Jonathan Sarrazin purchased an enslaved man named Abraham for the large sum of £810, who was identified as a silversmith in Petrie’s estate sale. The fact that Petrie had kept his silversmith’s tools at the time of his retirement in 1765 may indicate that the tools were being used by Abraham, who could have been maintaining Petrie’s shop or was hired out to other silversmiths such as Sarrazin. A rare but not unique southern artisan, Abraham was among a small number of other enslaved silversmiths have been documented working in Charleston, Richmond, and Annapolis during the eighteenth century. See Brandy S. Culp, “Artisan, Entrepreneur, and Gentleman: Alexander Petrie and the Colonial Charleston Silver Trade” (MA Thesis, Bard Graduate Center, 2004) and E. Milby Burton, “South Carolina Silversmiths 1690-1860 (Charleston, SC: Charleston Museum, 1967).

FORM: For most of the eighteenth century the accouterments for tea and coffee were acquired separately and did not necessarily match in style and shape. By the 1790s, all elements of a tea service (coffeepot, teapot, sugar bowl, waste bowl, and cream pitcher) were made somewhat uniformly in style, with the smaller pieces following the form of the coffee and teapots. In the eighteenth century, coffeepots were taller than teapots for two reasons: function and economics. They are taller in order to raise the spout higher from the bottom to prevent the coffee grounds (which sink to the bottom) from being poured into teacups or bowls; conversely, tea leaves float and are less likely to flow out the spout when tea is poured. This difference in coffee/tea pot heights carried forward into the nineteenth century as tradition even after strainers and other means for preventing coffee grounds from pouring out the spout were made popular. The second factor, economics, was driven by the expense of tea in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Tea was so expensive that only a small amount would be brewed at a time to prevent waste. In 1662 London, a pound of coffee cost between 4 and 7 shillings; around 1680 a pound of tea cost 11 to 12 shillings. The price of tea continued in the eighteenth century to rise higher than the price of coffee. See Wolfgang Schivelbusch, “Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants” (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), 83; Jane Pettigrew, “A Social History of Tea” (London: The National Trust, 2001), 140; and William H. Ukers, “The Romance of Tea: An Outline History of Tea and Tea-Drinking Through Sixteen Hundred Years” (London and New York: Knopf, 1936), 226, 226. All things considered, however, Charles Montgomery wrote an insightful summary of why we cannot be certain why coffeepots are larger than teapots in his book “A History of American Pewter” (New York: Knopf, 1936), 182-183.

This coffeepot has a reserve within the repousse work for a crest or initials but it was never engraved, suggesting that it may be the “1 Cased Coffee Pot wt. 32 oz. 3 dwt @ 65/ per oz…” purchased by William Michie (1726-1771) at the 1768 sale of Alexander Petrie’s estate. MESDA’s coffeepot weighs just under 1/2 ounce less than the one purchased by Michie–a difference easily attributable to two hundred years of polishing. In addition, MESDA’s coffeepot was discovered in England, possibly taken from Charleston by a fleeing loyalist. This history further supports a possible Michie provenance. In his will, William Michie bequeathed the residue of his estate–both real and personal property–to his brother Alexander, who also served as an administrator of the estate. When Alexander Michie died in 1774, George Ogilvie (1748-1801) was named administrator because Ogilvie was Alexander Michie’s “principal creditor.” If the coffeepot passed to Ogilvie as part of Alexander Michie’s estate, then it would have been taken by Ogilvie to London in 1779 when he fled South Carolina after refusing to take an oath of allegiance to the new American government.
Credit Line:
MESDA Purchase Fund