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Museum Feature

Southington Silver Charter Oak Wine Cooler

The story of our Museum Feature this month begins over 7,000 years ago, when wine was first produced on a large scale at the Hajji Firuz Tepe in the Zagros Mountains of what is now Iran. As the production and popularity of wine spread throughout the ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations in the years that followed, so too did an appreciation of different types of wine, and techniques for enjoying them. People soon learned that the serving temperature of wine greatly affects its taste and aroma (acidity and tannins are more pronounced at lower temperatures, but this also causes the aromatics to become muted). Achieving a perfect balance of aromatics, acidity, and tannins means serving a wine at its ideal temperature. To this end, wine cooling vessels have been in use since the sixth century BCE, when ancient Greeks used a mushroom-shaped vessel called a psykter to float wine in ice-cold water until it was chilled. Although the “correct” temperature to serve different types of wine is highly debatable, there is some consensus that most red wines should be served between 64°F and 68°F, while most white wines should be served colder, between 57°F and 61°F.

The topic of chilling wine brings us to our Museum Feature this month: a stunning silverplate wine cooler made by Southington Cutlery Company in 1893. The "Charter Oak" wine cooler stands 8 1/2-inches tall, and features an oak leaf and acorn motif with beautifully sculpted leaves, twigs, and acorns on the handles, around the base, and at the top of the cooler. Southington Cutlery Company was founded in Southington, Connecticut in 1867. Like many manufacturers in the area, Southington Co. harnessed the power of the Quinnipiac River as an energy source, producing a variety of goods such as tinware, carriage bolts, cutlery, nuts, bicycle parts, and Britannia ware. Southington produced hollowware items (like the Charter Oak wine cooler) from at least 1887 to 1893. The excellent craftsmanship of this wine cooler represents an equally well-crafted legend – that which surrounds the famed Charter Oak.

A towering behemoth of a tree, the Charter Oak stood on a hill in what is now Hartford, Connecticut. When the Charter Oak fell during a thunderstorm in 1856, it was estimated to be around 750 years old. It had served as an important landmark to Native Americans for centuries; they used it not only as a place to meet and hold council, but also as a planting calendar, sowing their spring corn crops according to the size of its foliage. When Dutch explorer Adrian Block made his voyage up the Connecticut River in 1614, he was so impressed with the tree that he made special mention of it in his trip log. In the 1630s, Samuel Wyllys, one of the first landowners in what is now the Hartford area, was clearing land around the tree. Concerned for its safety, a delegation of Native Americans met with Wyllys and asked him to leave the tree standing. Wyllys agreed the tree deserved to live – a fortunate occurrence in many regards, but perhaps most notably due to the tree’s future role in the storied history of the Connecticut Charter.

The Connecticut Charter was unlike any other colonial charter. Granted to the colony in 1662 by King Charles II, the Connecticut Charter offered an enormous degree of freedom and autonomy to the people of the Connecticut colony. But when James II assumed the throne upon Charles II's death in 1685, he decided he wanted tighter control over the American colonies, and asked for each to return its Charter in an attempt to consolidate the colonies under a singular rule of law. King James II then assigned Edmund Andros to be governor of all the New England colonies, and tasked him with retrieving Connecticut’s Charter. When Andros’ agents were met with resistance and failed to get the Charter, Andros decided to take matters into his own hands. Andros assembled over 70 British troops and marched to Hartford, where he was to meet with Robert Treat, the erstwhile governor of the Connecticut colony, and an assembly of other colony leaders at Moses Butler’s Tavern.

When Andros arrived at the tavern to get the Charter, he threatened charges of treason against those who would withhold the document any further. When it was made apparent nothing could be gained by further resistance, Governor Treat seemed to relent. But when it came time to hand the Charter over, as legend goes, the candles of the tavern were extinguished under mysterious circumstances. In the confusion and darkness that followed, the Charter was secreted out of the tavern’s window to Captain Joseph Wadsworth. Wadsworth made haste to the Wyllys homestead, where he promptly stashed the Charter in the hollow of the enormous oak tree. Although Connecticut didn't retain the power it had under the Charter, the symbolic document of freedom was safe, and the spirit of defiance against the British crown portended the revolution that would occur nearly a century later. The giant oak, now immortalized as the Charter Oak, lived on for another 170 years. On the day it fell, an honor guard was placed around the tree and funeral hymns were played. Many pieces of the tree were taken as souvenirs, and wood from the tree was used to craft an elaborate chair still used by the Speaker of the House in Connecticut’s General Assembly, as well as the desk of the Governor of Connecticut.

While the Southington Charter Oak wine cooler in our museum is not for sale, many of the silver patterns in our inventory include wonderful wine coolers; be sure to browse our web site. We also have Charter Oak patterns produced by Heisey Glass and International Silver. And remember that we always invite you to visit our facilities – here you’ll see a stunning variety of silver, china, crystal, and collectibles! Our retail store and museum are open from 9:00am to 7:00pm ET, 7 days a week (except holidays); free tours are available from 9:30am to 6:00pm ET, 7 days a week. The retail store and museum are conveniently located between Greensboro and Burlington, NC, at exit 132 off Interstate 85/40. We look forward to seeing you!

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