A Tale of Two Families: An Engraved Tea Service in Antebellum Georgia


by Kayli Rideout

As the inaugural recipient of the William C. and Susan S. Mariner Fellowship for Emerging Museum Professionals sponsored by the Decorative Arts Trust, I benefited from the opportunity to attend the 2019 Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) Summer Institute (figures 7 and 8). Over the course of four weeks, the Summer Institute Fellows were immersed in the Southern Backcountry curriculum, a comprehensive immersion into the material culture of the Cotton South. Through hands-on field studies, lectures from professionals in the field, and visits to private collections, we explored the decorative art traditions of the region, using objects to consider topics such as ancestry, community, immigration, and enslavement.

As a scholar of Southern identity and material culture, these experiences strengthened my understanding of the region’s nuances and the role that rural communities play in constructing our idea of the South. My summer research project, a study of a 19th-century silver tea service from Augusta, GA, in the MESDA collection bearing the mark of “Clark & Co.,” further encouraged my exploration in Southern identity studies (figures 1, 2, and 3). By reading the object through the hands of its people, I explored the object as a vessel for the narratives of two families: producer and consumer. Viewed through this lens, the tea service becomes representative of larger social structures—migration and industry, power and patriarchy—that combined to reveal a portrait of a Southern city on the brink of the Civil War. 

There were a number of jewelers and silversmiths with the surname Clark working in Augusta during the 19th century. The establishment of the Bank of Augusta (1810), the United States Arsenal (1819), and the Medical College of Georgia (1829) mirrored the growth of the city, which had prospered for years at the end of the Great Wagon Road. A new burst of economic growth came in the mid-19th century, created by the forced displacement and removal of the Creek and Cherokee peoples, which allowed for the cotton cultivation to stretch into western Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. In 1846, the construction of the Augusta Canal provided another economic boom by attracting iron works, flour and cotton mills, and other manufactories. These new opportunities in trade made for desirable conditions for craftspeople, evidenced by the great number of artisans active during the period. This economic growth can be traced through the evolution of Clark & Co. from 1820 to 1850.

Advertisement records indicate that Francis Clark was operating on Broad Street as early as 1816.1 Over the firm’s period of activity in Augusta, Clark & Co.’s advertisements and business iterations reflected many of the changes occurring in the national silver trade. In 1816, when Clark first announced his business in the Augusta Chronicle, he advertised the repair of clocks and watches and an assortment of jewelry, watches, silver spoons, and thimbles for sale. Clark’s shop was typical of the time, one with few employees who produced objects by hand with the help of basic machinery and offered other allied services and retail goods to meet the needs of less populated areas.2

By the 1830s, the Clark firm had gained a partner in Francis’s brother Horace Clark, and, in 1838, the firm joined with George Rackett to form “Clark, Rackett & Co.” Following the death of George Rackett in January 1852, the Clark firm continued as Clark & Co. with Horace and Joseph Steadman Clark at the helm. In 1857, Joseph Steadman Clark partnered with his brother-in-law, William J. Mealing, to continue the business under the same name at 206 Broad Street until at least 1865.

The MESDA tea service, bearing the Clark & Co. mark, was presumably crafted between the years 1852–1865, the period in which the firm operated under that name. With repoussé body ornament of C-scrolls, flowers, and shells, the service reflects the Rococo Revival, a style that was especially pervasive in silver at this time. The style took hold of the industry by the 1830s and remained popular in the South into the second half of the century (figures 4 and 5), well after it had fallen out of favor in other parts of the country.

This service features cast and applied elements that are especially indicative of the style: handles with foliage and floral ornamentation, finials and pierced feet in the form of c-scrolls and shells, and a die-rolled border in a leaf motif. With most silversmiths now engaging in the retail trade, it was common for shops to source materials that could easily be assembled for sale. Because any number of shops could procure ornaments from one supplier, similar stylistic elements often appear in contemporaneous objects by multiple silversmiths, thereby speaking to the evolution of trade on a local and national level. Clark & Co. engaged in this practice in Augusta, and a number of similar examples have survived from the region.

The practice of serving of tea in the home was tied to domesticity, respectability, and gentility.3 Tea services often featured engraving that commemorated marriage and the start of a new household. The use of only an engraved first name, “Amy,” as found on the MESDA service, was rare (figure 3).

At the time of the 1850 United States Federal Census, there were four women named Amy living in Georgia’s Richmond County. Amy and Isaac Heard lived in Division 73 with their two children, Amy and Isaac T. Amy Heard was given a family name, passed down through her father’s side. Her grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great grandmother all bore the name, and Amy passed it to her own daughter, born Amy Mary Heard, in 1848. Given the time period in which Clark & Co. was operating in Georgia, the Heard family’s wealth and status in Augusta, and the importance of the “Amy” name to that family, it is likely that the Heards owned the service, which MESDA received as a gift from a leading collector of Georgia decorative arts without any provenance.

Spanning five generations, the persistence of the name speaks to the values of the family and the social and cultural traditions of the period. Naming patterns of white Antebellum Southerners largely reflected the “patriarchal order,” but the use of a maternal name honored the mother’s family rather than the mother herself. With these patriarchal naming conventions in place, the prominence of Amy’s name supports a current theory about the relationships between women in the Antebellum South, specifically the relationships between white, slave-holding women. Women in the 19th century responded to their status in the patriarchal order by developing close relationships with other women, especially between mothers and daughters. The existence of Amy’s namesake tea service takes on new meaning as a material expression of female and maternal identity.

As a slave owning family, Amy’s material expression of identity would have differed greatly from those of her enslaved. Her performances of gentility and respectability are as much about displays of enslaved servitude as they are about owning the proper tea equipage. This display of servitude is implicit in the language used to describe the grouping of silver used for the performance of tea. The “service” refers equally to the objects and their usage, with service in the Antebellum South almost always implying the existence of enslaved labor (figure 6). Exploring these social structures provides a more accurate and complete narrative of these objects in the original context.

From its assemblage in the Clark brothers’ Augusta shop to Amy Heard’s parlor in the hands of her enslaved house servants, this tea service preserves the stories of industry, power, and patriarchy in Antebellum Georgia. The generosity of the Decorative Arts Trust through the Mariner Fellowship and participation in the MESDA Summer Institute gave me the tools to tell a more complete story of this object through its people and an invaluable education in the complexity and nuance of Southern material culture.

1 Augusta Chronicle, Augusta, GA, 1806-1817 (November 22, 1816): 3. 

2 George Barton Cutten, Katharine Gross Farnham, and Callie Huger Efird, The Silversmiths of Georgia: Together with Watchmakers and Jewelers, 1733–1850 (Savannah, GA: Oglethorpe Press, 1998): 3. 

3 Hohenegger, Beatrice, ed. Steeped in History: The Art of Tea. (Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2009): 129-136. 

Kayli Rideout is a PhD Student at Boston University, American & New England Studies Program, and was formerly a Tiffany & Co. Foundation Curatorial Intern at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is a 2019 Decorative Arts Trust Continuing Education Scholarship recipient.

A print version of this article was published in The Magazine of the Decorative Arts Trust, one of our most popular member benefits. Join today!


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