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Museum Feature

Museum Feature – Stieff Sterling Silver Tea Ball

This month from our museum we’re featuring a gorgeous sterling silver tea ball in the “Stieff Rose” pattern by Stieff Silver. Prior to the invention of paper tea bags, ‘tea balls’ (sometimes called tea eggs) provided a convenient way to make individual cups of tea, eliminating the need to dirty teapots and tea strainers. Most tea balls (like the one in our museum) included a chain to easily remove the ball once the loose tea inside had brewed to the desired strength.

Tea balls began to decline in popularity following the arrival of tea bags, which were “invented” by tea merchant Thomas Sullivan. In 1908, Sullivan, looking for a way to cut expenses, began sending out tea samples in small silken bags rather than in the tin boxes then commonly used. Instead of removing the tea from the bags, Sullivan’s customers used them as they would a tea ball, and soon began to request that all their tea be packaged in bags. Seeing a business opportunity (and responding to customer requests for bags whose mesh wasn’t so fine), Sullivan developed tea bags from other materials like gauze and paper. The 1920s saw the first commercial production of tea bags, which quickly gained widespread popularity - especially in America.

Aside from water, tea is the most-consumed beverage in the world, and has been enjoyed for thousands of years. Although it’s unknown how we first started drinking tea, one popular legend states that Chinese emperor and herbalist Shen Nung was the first person to drink the beverage, around 2737 BC. As the story goes, Shen Nung was boiling a pot of drinking water underneath a tea tree when some leaves from the tree blew off and fell into the pot. Shen Nung decided to drink the infused concoction, and the practice of tea drinking was officially begun. Although there’s no way verify this legend, it is believed tea was at least being consumed by around 1500 BC in the Yunnan province of China (where the tea tree, Camellia sinensis, originated).

Tea at this time was prepared by mashing and pressing the tea leaves into a brick, which was then dried and ground as needed. Much later, during the Ming Dynasty (1368 AD to 1644 AD), loose tea leaves were cured or roasted and then crumbled, boiled, and strained – the basic method still practiced today. Tea was not known by Europeans until the 16th century, when Portuguese missionaries in Asia witnessed the practice of tea drinking. In 1606, the Dutch were the first to import tea to Europe, where its popularity spread – although it was considered a luxury item, and mostly bought by the wealthy. Tea started appearing in English coffeehouses in the 1650s, where it was enjoyed by not only the upper class but also the middle and working classes. As English and European settlers brought tea with them to their colonies, drinking tea became a common practice around the world, eventually achieving the popularity it has today.

In 1892, Charles Stieff founded Stieff Silver in Baltimore, Maryland. Stieff utilized a style of silver design known as "repousse," a form of metalworking that involves hammering a design into the inside surface of a piece of metal so that the ornamentation appears in relief on the outside. Most often the design is then worked from the outside with a pointed or patterned punch. This technique, called “chasing,” sharpens and defines the repousse ornamentation and enhances the three-dimensional effect of the design. Some of the best-known pieces of this type of metalwork date from antiquity.

In 1939, Stieff began to produce replicas of items produced by famous silversmiths like Paul Revere, Jacob Hurd, John Burt, and Charles LeRoux for Colonial Williamsburg, Inc. The pieces would be sold under the "Colonial Williamsburg" stamp, and sold in Williamsburg as well as at Stieff retail stores. During World War II, Stieff put aside normal operations to aid in the war effort. The Stieff factory manufactured items for the US Army and Navy including electronic assemblies, radar parts, and surgical instruments. After the end of the war, the company once again focused on silver production. During late 1960s and 1970s, Stieff Silver acquired several Baltimore silversmiths, including one of America's oldest silver manufacturers: Samuel Kirk & Son.

Samuel Kirk began his silver career as an apprentice to James Howell in Philadelphia. In 1815, he partnered with John Smith to open a small shop in Baltimore, Maryland. Kirk’s customers included Maria Monroe (daughter of President James Monroe), who chose Kirk’s “Mayflower” as the silver pattern for her White House wedding. Kirk silver products began to garner attention outside of Maryland, and their client list grew to include Belmonts, Astors, and Roosevelts, among other prestigious and wealthy families around the nation.

The early 1950s brought a great demand for silver, and Kirk saw continued success. However, as silver demand began to decline in the 1960s, the Kirk Corporation (as it was then known) began to struggle. The company sold its assets to the Stieff Company in 1979. Stieff’s acquisition of Kirk was an exciting combination of two of America's most influential silver firms. Still, lessened demand for silver products resulted in Kirk Stieff’s sale to Lenox, Inc. in 1990. Today, a variety of the original Kirk and Stieff patterns are produced by Lifetime Brands, which purchased Kirk Stieff in 2007.

While the sterling silver “Stieff Rose” tea ball in our museum is not for sale, we do have a variety of Kirk Stieff pieces available for purchase in our inventory; be sure to browse our web site. 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 500,000-square-foot facilities hold more than 12 million individual pieces in more than 425,000 patterns! Our showroom and museum are open from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm ET, 7 days (except holidays); free tours are available from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm ET, 7 days. The showroom 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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