This is the earliest known piece of American silver made for presidential use. It is inscribed with the initials of John and Abigail (Smith) Adams. John Adams (1735–1826), second president of the United States, was born in Massachusetts and educated at Harvard College. A leader in the Revolutionary cause, he served in both Continental Congresses and helped to draft the Declaration of Independence. He was later one of the representatives who negotiated the Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War in 1783, and acted as the first United States minister to Great Britain, between 1785 and 1788. Adams was elected vice president under George Washington and became president of the United States in 1797.1New Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “John Adams.”
This coffeepot, which dates stylistically to Adams’s term as president, is the only major piece of silver known that bears Nathaniel Austin’s mark, “NA” in block letters within a square reserve, here placed on the shoulder near the rim to the left of the handle. Nathaniel Austin was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, within months of the birth of John Adams. He and his younger brother, James (b. 1750), probably received their training in the shop of their uncle, Josiah Austin (1720–1780). Nathaniel began his silversmithing business in Charlestown, but his shop was wrecked in the bombardment of 1776, and he and his wife, Anna (Kent) Austin, moved across the river to Boston.2Kane 1998, s.v. “Nathaniel Austin,” and Flynt and Fales, 147. Nathaniel Austin purchased twelve scalloped teaspoons from Paul Revere, Jr., in 1787, six of which survive and bear Austin’s mark. A teapot and stand with the same cipher bear Revere’s mark overstruck with the mark of Josiah Austin, a mark also used by Nathaniel throughout the 1780s.3Kane 1998, s.v. “Nathaniel Austin.” The teapot, teapot stand, and six surviving scalloped teaspoons are all engraved with the same cipher, “HC,” for Hannah Carter. The teapot has the mark “J. Austin” overstriking “Revere;” while the matching stand is marked by Revere; and the six teaspoons bear the J. Austin mark only. Revere charged Nathaniel Austin for twelve scalloped teaspoons, twelve plain teaspoons, and a pair of silver tea tongs, and for engraving twenty-five ciphers in 1787. Nathaniel Austin billed William Smith, who married Hannah Carter in 1787, for these and other silver items. It is interesting to note that he passed along the costs charged to him by Revere directly and did not make a profit on Revere’s work. The six surviving scalloped teaspoons are now at Yale (Buhler and Hood, 1: 191). The teapot and stand are in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Buhler 1972, 2: 430–31). It therefore seems likely that this coffeepot, so different from anything else made by Austin, was made in Paul Revere’s shop. Although the coffeepot cannot be attributed to Revere’s shop definitely, it shows the refinement associated with Revere’s work, and the engraved acorn border is similar to the borders on marked Revere silver, if a little sketchier and less finished.4See Buhler and Hood, 1: 197, and Garrett, 24.
The combination of an urn-shaped pot with a domed cover is unusual. The rather narrow, ribbonlike border of repetitive engraving and the fine reeding (instead of beading) on the base, shoulder, and rim help to date this coffeepot to about 1800. The engraved reserve in the form of a belt or garter is an unusual touch.5The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, recently acquired an unmarked coffeepot (2000.826) attributed to Revere and also owned originally by William and Hannah (Carter) Smith. It bears the acorn-and-leaf decoration and the buckled medallion also found on the Collection’s coffeepot, and on several other objects marked by Revere. It is thought to have been made about 1798 for the Smiths and retailed by Austin, who was related to the Smiths and who served as middleman in other transactions between that family and Revere. A Sheffield-plate coffee urn owned by the Adamses and engraved with the same cipher is in the White House collection.6Silver Supplement, 15–16.
Barbara McLean Ward and Jennifer F. Goldsborough
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.