Trained as a military engineer, Sylvanus Thayer (1785–1872) studied in military schools in Europe for the United States government prior to his 1817 appointment as superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. By 1833, when he requested to be relieved of his command, he had transformed the academy into a disciplined and efficient institution.1DAB, s.v. “Sylvanus Thayer.” Thayer’s pride in his own military accomplishments and those of his young nation was displayed at table in the fine set of China-trade porcelain plates that are now traditionally associated with him. The example illustrated here shows a triumphant eagle, borrowed from the Great Seal, perched atop a cannon surrounded by tokens of war and American flags. In contrast, the elegant borders of a leaf chain and flowered double festoons are quietly neoclassical.
Few American China-trade services from this period are as decorative or as patriotic as this one, but Thayer was not the only customer to order the design. A second set of plates survives from the Nichols family of Salem, Massachusetts.2Gordon 1977, pl. 20. The authors wish to thank Mrs. Gordon for confirming that the Nichols and Thayer services are separate. Punch bowls, a mug, a cider jug, and a pair of cylinder vases with the same eagle-and-trophies motif, but with different borders, are also extant.3The vases and a punch bowl are at Winterthur (see Palmer 1976,136 and 141). The covered jug is in the Reeves Collection (see Reeves Collection, cover). A second punch bowl, also associated with Thayer, is owned by the Dietrich American Foundation, Philadelphia. A mug is in the New-York Historical Society (see Howard 1984, 115–16).
The circumstances surrounding the occasion for the purchase of this particular service are unknown, but the various borders that were used with the central motif suggest that the different pieces could have been ordered from about 1805 to as late as about 1817.4Howard 1984, 115, suggests that the War of 1812 was a time when the motif was particularly appropriate.
Ellen Paul Denker and Bert R. Denker
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.