Mary Todd Lincoln and the McFarland Teapot

One of my most recent teapot purchases came with an amazing surprise tucked inside.

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A note was folded up and placed inside this 18th century porcelain beauty….a note that detailed its genealogy of ownership. Sadly, the ownership chain had been broken for a few decades as the last generational owner passed away. But the delight in finding anything about the original owner of such a teapot was beyond my wildest dreams.

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As you can see from the note, it has a long history, of immigration, lineage, weddings, and familial intermarriage to the cousin level. Even as extreme as the “double cousin” level. Yikes! It also mentions TWO teapots, but this is the only one discovered.

After reading all of the begats, I looked at the front of the teapot, and sure enough, there was a label that had been added at some point, to celebrate the marriage of Arthur and Elizabeth Todd McFarland in 1758.

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Due to the wear of the writing, I’m not sure how close to the event this was added. Since it was a wedding gift, perhaps it was added in 1758? After seeing other examples of added glaze decoration, this just doesn’t feel right for a 1758 label. I could be wrong, and perhaps it was just a sloppy job? Either way, the half worn appliqué is a lovely addition tying the teapot to its place in history.

After completing my obligatory happy dance at such a discovery, I got serious about matters and inquired further with the seller concerning the provenance. After all, I was afraid this person was parting with a family heirloom. On the contrary, while it had belonged to his mother’s estate, she had purchased it years ago at a Church rummage sale next door to a nursing home in Florida. A bit of a relief, but still sad, nonetheless.

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Mary Todd Lincoln, circa 1846. Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-6189. 

Once this little gem had made it home to my collection, I began going over the family connections. As a history nerd, the surname “Todd” was setting my wheels to turning. It couldn’t be, surely…not the same family as the other Todd clan we’ve all heard of.

So I started doing some research into this line. My first stop at Findagrave.com had me linking pretty quickly to the generation of Mary Todd Lincoln’s Great Grandfather….cue hyperventilating. Then I calmed down and started looking for corroboration.

According to a sweet little book entitled, Todd Family, Copied from Kittochtinny Magazine, 1905, also From the mss papers of Mrs. Emily Todd Helm by Nina M. Visscher, 1939, the lineage in the letter is spot on.

Some of the information was reported within a few generations of Elizabeth by Emilie (Emily) Todd Helm – Mary Todd Lincoln’s half sister – who became the Todd family historian. To spare you the gory details, this teapot belonged to Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-great great aunt, Elizabeth Todd Parker McFarland. Huzzah!

Remember the great grandfather I mentioned earlier? David Todd, son of Robert, “the immigrant”, was a child of Robert’s first marriage to “unknown” Smith. Poor girl, we’ve lost her given name over the years. Robert next married Isabella Hamilton and started having a lot more offspring. Elizabeth Todd (David’s half sister) was one of the next in line in order of birth. David’s descendant line stretches to Mary Todd Lincoln through his son Levi, to son Robert, and then to Mary Todd Lincoln. OK, you can uncross your eyes now…in linear fashion, this is what it looks like:

Robert Todd — David Todd (Elizabeth Todd McFarland’s half brother) — Levi Todd — Robert Todd — Mary Todd Lincoln.

So, enough about Mary Todd Lincoln…here’s a bit more information about the happy couple who owned this teapot. It appears that Elizabeth was married previously to a William Parker. They had three children, and then he died around 1757. The very next year, Elizabeth marries Arthur McFarland in 1758. She wasn’t moving on too soon – this was common for widows to marry again as soon as possible – first, more men than women created quite the demand – second, women had little to no rights, and for protection/financial stability/survival, they needed a husband.

supply-tax2_hAfter Elizabeth and Arthur marry in 1758, they have four more children. Arthur is listed in the Todd family history as “Major” Arthur McFarland. I have not been able to find record of this military service, but since he was born in 1720 and died in 1780, I’m guessing it’s not for service in the American Revolution. If it was for an earlier war, such as French and Indian, I’d have to keep digging. With a person of property during the Revolution, one naturally questions allegiance, and I’m happy to say that I found Arthur listed in the Philadelphia “Supply Tax” rolls for the year he died. This type of tax was taken from those who were supporting the cause of the Revolution.

Elizabeth died May 21st, 1790, and she is buried alongside her second husband, Arthur McFarland in the Providence Presbyterian Church graveyard outside Philadelphia.

So, in light of these details, does this jibe with the details of the teapot itself? Does it look like a teapot made in 1758? One clue that was included in the family note referenced “Lowestoft.” This type of teapot was made in England at the time, but I feel this label is inaccurate. One of my favorite tools for learning how to visually understand porcelain terminology and teapot construction is the museum website. Places like the MET and the Victoria and Albert Museum allow you to search their collections with terms you’ve come across. These are going to be wonderful experts in the matter, even over antiques dealers who might have good intentions, but lack sufficient expertise to get the variances correct. After all, no one is an expert in everything.

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At the end of the day, Lowestoft examples appear to have a slightly different shape, domed lid, and different decoration. This porcelain does fit into the small, rounded Chinese Export examples….but I’m no expert….just collecting and learning as I go. As for 1758, yeah, it fits OK there too. Other examples of this construction fit that time frame. Also, the imperfections, firing flaws, bottom look (sans mark), strainer area, handle attachment, and glaze embellishments fit with the period.

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One other thing I love about this teapot is its very old repair. Somewhere along the timeline, the lid was broken in half. Due to its strong family connection, they had it repaired instead of tossing it altogether. This unsightly staple repair is typical of the 19th century, and produces another layer of charm to this storied teapot.

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Touring the Charleston Tea Plantation

This past fall, my family and I had the pleasure of touring the Charleston Tea Plantation. You read that right, BTW, Charleston – as in, South Carolina. Tea, being grown and packaged right here in the states. Our trip to Wadmalaw Island was my whim alone, as I assumed I was dragging my family out there. At the end of the day, we all agreed it was one of the absolute highlights of our trip to the Charleston area. My recommendation: It is a MUST SEE for tea worshipers.

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One of the things you should know about the Charleston Tea Plantation – there is a HUGE retail tea store on the plantation. Which is, of course, free to visit anytime. They do sell their line of tea, but they also sell tea lovelies: teapots, tea cups, strainers, cozies, etc. Plus, as a delightful bonus, they have a tea bar that is free for the partaking while you shop – or while you tour the processing plant attached to the retail shop – for free! I admit to walking in the door and hearing tea angels singing.

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The first stop for visitors is the retail shop. Even the front porch is fun – huge and comfortable with a whimsical tea drinking frog, and chalk boards to record location of visitors. Large enough to hold many waiting for the trolley, or to wait out the family while they shop if you are not quite as obsessed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce inside the front door, a beautiful, and spacious world of tea utopia takes your breath away. I had such trouble finding a place to start. My first inclination was to throw my keys back to the family and tell them to pick me up in a couple of days, because I was going to be awhile. Beyond the tea “things” that surround you, there is the tea bar – the two most glorious words I’ve ever heard – we seriously need more of these EVERYWHERE! Visitors are welcome to try every variety that they produce on the plantation – both hot and cold. It is encouraged to walk around with your tea sample while you shop or tour the processing factory which is attached to the retail area. A new tour of the processing plant begins every 15 minutes.

Touring the processing area is relaxing, incredibly educational, and beautiful. Watching the video introductions of each section while viewing the bright green of the newly plucked leaves is truly fascinating. This is the part of the experience where we hear the word “Bigelow” for the first time.

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The tea processed at this stage is being harvested, dried, and packaged for a trip up to Connecticut where the Bigelow factory is located. They then take these large shipments of tea leaves, and package for retail sales, under the “Charleston Tea Plantation” brand. Apparently, it is cheaper to ship in bulk to Connecticut to package there, rather than build a new packaging facility on-site.

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The zen-like peace of this plantation carried us further as we opted for the plantation tour via trolley. At $10 per person, it was very reasonable, and serves to complete the experience. Plan your trip accordingly to include the trolley – you won’t be disappointed!

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThrough this tour we learn a few valuable pieces of information.

1. Their tea is grown pesticide free.

2. This is the only tea growing farm in North America.

3. This plantation is owned by the Bigelow Tea Company, but the tea harvested at this plantation does NOT supply the Bigelow Company.

4. The Charleston Tea Plantation brand of teas is the only tea grown 100% in the United States.

5. Due to their commitment to growing pesticide free products, they will not sell a decaffeinated version of their teas. Why? Because the process to decaffeinate uses chemicals. They are happy to provide you with the recipe for naturally decaffeinating any tea with boiling water. (Link goes to an FAQ that includes the recipe.)

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A few additional highlights:

The tour takes visitors past field after field of mature Camellia Sinensis plants, which are trimmed by a large green machine that harvests the tips of the plants for processing. In April and May, they feature a “first flush” harvest which is supposed to be the epitome of tea indulgence.

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Another stop on the tour is the large greenhouse that nurtures young plants for sustained growth. If you’re lucky, the plants will be in bloom during your tour – something we witnessed during our tour in mid-September.

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I cannot recommend this place enough! It was educational, culturally enriching, and a fantastic place to get loads of tea goodies. I confess to having come home with my first tea cozy!  As a cat lover, this cat cozy was a no brainer. Even if you are in the area, and have no time for the full tour, the shop always awaits when in Charleston. Verdict: This is an experience all tea aficionados must try at least once. Takeaway: I don’t get to Charleston too often, but as a resource of locally grown and pesticide free tea, I will be ordering additional treats online as needed. Go ahead, give them a try! Shopping via the Bigelow website: http://www.bigelowtea.com/CharlestonTeaPlantation?page=2  OR at various retail locations found in 17 states: http://www.charlestonteaplantation.com/where-to-buy 

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Cherishing the Chipped Spout

Teapots are mercurial objects. At least, they are when you first meet one. Beholding a teapot for the first time is an introduction to a spherical mystery. Very much like people, we form impressions of them based on what we observe. When shopping for antique teapots, there are certain manufacturing or artisanal details that provide a biography of the object. We glean clues from the glazing, shape, staining, design, maker’s mark, and underlying composition. I have learned to identify the very old and the very young as they sit there upon the shelf, awaiting a new home.

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I have seen it all. Perfection, staining, a sloppy potter’s hand, soul jarring cracks, and most frequently, the chip at the end of the spout. When I first began collecting, the chipped spout would sometimes prevent my purchase. Over time, I encountered so many perfect teapots, that were marred by that one blemish, that I began to accept them.

It was the teapots of the 1940s that made me truly re-think the chip. I love the Hall line of teapots. Beautiful colors, heavy, and workhorse durable. This is why we see so many. They were built to withstand the extreme daily tea-drinking demands of a household. Their era of creation was also a time of “elegant economy.” While they may have been more affordable than their teapot ancestors, the teapots of the 30s and 40s were examples of durability, mass production, and responsibility.

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It was from this era that my first Hall teapot purchase was made. Part of the Victorian line, this “Benjamin” in mint green was showcased on a wooden filigreed shelf at an autumn craft fair. For $15.00 it was a steal. Absolutely perfect condition, except for that chip on the spout. Of course, I could not resist this beautiful gem of teapot history. I took it home, and examined it closely. Suddenly, it was if we were sharing a conversation. I could see some evidence of the passage of time, but it was the chip that told the biggest tale. It spoke of family. Long days or difficult events, tempered by the miracle elixir of tea. I saw the women in the kitchen, pouring cup after cup after cup, over many years. Hectic days, a flurry of activity, and in haste, the spout comes in contact with something hard enough to create a chip.

You see….the chip is evidence of a well-loved teapot. One that was a soldier in the front lines of family. Day in and day out, it served, without fainting, always at the ready. The teapots with the chipped spouts are not the dainty show-horses that live a life of luxury in the glass cupboard, only called into duty on special occasions. No, the chipped spout is a badge of honor, a testament to reliability in adversity.

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I know what you’re thinking – The chip may not be a result of daily duty, but rather, the clumsy treatment of antique dealers, or the middle folk transferring ownership. That can sometimes be the case. However, I have also learned to spy the chips that are older. They include staining and age. You can see a patina of time. Newer chips are glaring – the fresh chip is bright and sticks out like a sore thumb.

At the end of the day, the chipped spout speaks to you or it does not. The more I learn about teapots and their development over the centuries, I am amazed that any of the early ones still survive. They look delicate, but have an underlying strength that very much relates to the beverage they serve. Tea itself looks delicate, weak, but holds a strength we rely on to get us through each day. After all history has put them through, I will cherish them, and their chipped spouts.