Tankard, ca. 1765
Height: 23.5 cm (9 1/4 inches)
Mary B. Jackson Fund 32.193
About the work
Paul Revere is best known for his patriotic activities during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and for his skills as a silversmith. The son of a silversmith born in France, Revere lived in Boston, a major center of silver production and innovation in colonial America and the home of many eminent 18th-century silversmiths worked in the 18th century. During this period, affluence could be measured as much in silver possessions as in coin, so silver was used to create beautiful objects that also signified wealth. Skilled silversmiths, newly immigrated, brought their craft to American clients seeking functional objects that would convey their owner’s status and sophistication.
Theft in the colonial era was common, but fine silver provided some degree of financial protection for the growing class of wealthy elite—the presence of a maker’s mark or the owner’s coat of arms or initials easily allowed officials to determine the proper ownership of stolen goods. This tankard is engraved with the Jackson family coat of arms on the front of the body, the owner’s initials (J.J.A.) on the handle, and Revere’s maker’s mark on the bottom.
The silversmith gave special attention to the tankard’s manufacture and design, as it was intended to be used and appreciated by contemporaries participating in the popular ritual of social drinking. Unlike more everyday pewter tankards, which may have been cast away after several years of use, this silver one would have been especially valued for its materials and craftsmanship. Formed using thin sheets of silver that were cut, shaped, hammered, and finished with hand tools, the tankard is characterized by restrained elegance. Its appearance exemplifies a new movement that brought simplicity, symmetry, refinement, and regularity to the decorative arts. This was in response to the extravagant ornamentation of Rococo design found at the time in English decorative objects in particular.
Revere’s craftsmanship is demonstrated by the pinecone finial at the top, the scroll handle, and the exceptionally delicate engraving. Like Revere, other American designers saw in these new forms and their emphasis on simplicity a distinct new American style, especially as tensions rose between Britain and the colonies in the years preceding the American War of Independence.
What does Revere’s tankard tell us about American values in the late 18th century? What are some of the tankard’s details that support your claims?
To imagine what it might have been like to design a form like this tankard, have your students carefully draw just the outlines of the vessel on a piece of paper. Next, to get an idea of the style Revere’s tankard was moving away from, show an image of a piece of silver made in the Rococo style, such as this ornate cake basket, and it with compare the tankard.
Discuss the similarities and differences between these two approaches in terms of the attention to surface decoration and the general form of each object. To explore 18th-century colonial America’s social class and structure, ask students to invent a context or life for this tankard by writing a one-page story in which the tankard is used. Who might have commissioned and owned it? In what situations might it have been used? What does it reveal about the owner’s social/economic status and values? To inspire brainstorming, consider Moses Gill, the subject of this painting by John Singleton Copley, as the possible owner of the tankard.
To focus on the significant economic role silver an object such as this tankard played in colonial America, imagine what it would have been like to work as a silversmith during that time. For families that could afford silver wares, silversmiths made household items such as spoons, forks, cups, thimbles, and combs by hand by cutting, shaping, and hammering thin sheets of silver using anvils, hammers, and chasing hammers to form details. To help students understand the steps involved in manufacturing a small object, they can watch this video.
As students consider the life of the silversmith, take into consideration that many silversmiths in the Boston area, like Revere’s father, had emigrated from countries such as France and England. Set students to work in teams to brainstorm and design persuasive advertisements for a tankard like this one. Have teams use words, pictures, or both to attract potential customers.