Mary Todd Lincoln and the McFarland Teapot

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


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.


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.


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.

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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

The sights and scents of spring seduce the senses for but a short period of time. As each new cluster of blossoms take shape, a new set dies away. One of my absolute favorite fragrances of  spring-time splendor is the Korean Spice Viburnum  (Viburnum carlesii).


My first encounter with this overwhelmingly seductive blossom was back in my college days, walking through the labyrinth of paths that led to class. Spring had a remarkable way of lifting the spirits of the stress-filled college student consumed with papers, exams, and deadlines. Fortunately, landscaping was a priority at my University. No matter which path I took, there was a special batch of color and fragrance to welcome me, creating a beautiful, momentary amnesia that made me smile.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Korean Spice Viburnum was rather large on this campus, but by allowing the larger growth, it produced more blooms, filling the air with an exotically spicy scent. I actually passed by it for a couple of years before finally identifying the species. But I admit to snagging a couple of blossoms on my way to class to get my spring fix prior to being trapped inside the classroom.

Despite being long away from my alma mater, I still spot this variety in my spring travels, and am even lucky enough to have several outside of my office. As a woody-stemmed species, picking blossoms can be tricky, but with enough effort, and fingernails, you can easily fill a vase…or teapot… with these delightful spring ambassadors. As for their spring endurance, their sweet, but spicy, aroma can last for days indoors, and the proliferation of blooms on one large bush is rather sequential, providing a longer enjoyment over the spring season.

Of course, there is no better way to display these spring beauties than in a small teapot. With each blossom stem only being a couple of inches long, I opted for a small “bachelor teapot” from the early 19th century. A black basalt variety that was purchased in England, with the marking “Cyples” on the bottom, indicating a company that produced products in Staffordshire for a only a few decades. I adore the strength and beauty of black basalt or basaltes ware. Originally, it was advertised as “indestructible” since it is fashioned from ground stone and glass to provide a more durable product. My little beauty here has a couple of chips on the lid, which allows me to see the internal construction of a very fine black grain – not a black glaze over other material.


I will cover black basalt pottery in future posts as I have more than one teapot to share, and feel these unique items should be more appreciated. Besides, there is an intriguing connection between the black basalt popularity and archaeology of the time…stay tuned!

P.S. Behind the Scenes:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor those of you with cats….you can understand the challenge of snapping a few photos within their domain! I know it was curiosity only, but hope the scent of spring gave them something new to enjoy as well. Cheers to a ‘scentsational’ spring!