From the October/November 2013 Issue:

A Punchier Bowl

    Columnist: Leslie Gilbert Elman |

Let us introduce you to the monteith

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enlarge | You’ll find many examples of monteiths in porcelain, glass and glazed earthenware made in the Netherlands, Germany and even in China. This one, made by the Sevres Porcelain Factory in France, is dated 1781 and was big enough to accommodate 12 glasses. It sold for $6,250 at Christie’s New York auction in 2012. Christie’s Images Ltd. 2013
When is a “punch bowl” not a punch bowl? When it’s a monteith. Notice the distinctive scalloped rim. That’s not merely an adornment; it served a specific purpose. Fashionable folk in the late seventeenth century, who enjoyed sipping chilled wine in the summertime, would have known precisely what a monteith was and why it suddenly became a must-have table accessory in households and private clubs.

Wine was chilled in a wine cooler—a deep vessel filled with ice or, in a pinch, cold water (see “In Vino Veritas,” Design NJ, June/July 2012). But pouring that chilled wine into warm wineglasses would have detracted from the experience. So the monteith—a large, deep, ornate bowl usually made of silver—was developed specifically to chill wineglasses. It would have been filled with cold water or crushed ice, then stemmed wineglasses would have been suspended in the notches. The body of the glass was cooled in the water while the stem stayed dry. When the wine was about to be poured, each guest would select a glass from the monteith and have it filled. When the glass was empty, it was placed back in the monteith until the next bottle was served. (It was stylish, but not necessarily sanitary!)

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enlarge | Made during the reign of William III in England, this silver monteith is dated 1700 and bears the mark of London silversmith William Andrews. It’s 10 1/4 inches in diameter and has a detachable rim. The handles are a common feature because monteiths are heavy, especially when filled with water or ice. Part of a collection belonging to the late pianist Van Cliburn, this monteith sold for $35,000 at a Christie’s New York auction in 2012. Christie’s Images Ltd. 2013
Thank You, Mr. Monteith... Whoever You Are
The name Monteith (or Monteigh or Monteth) is said to refer to a Scotsman of the late 1600s who gained repute for the unusual scalloped hem of his cloak. This charming story could be a total fabrication. No specific Mr. Monteith was ever connected with the bowl that bears his name or with the U-shaped notches that supposedly inspired its design. Still, it’s the sort of story that takes on a life of its own. First documented in 1683 in the diaries of an Oxford scholar, by 1708 the Monteith was immortalized in a poem called “The Art of Cookery” by William King:

New things produce new words and thus Monteith
Has by one vessel saved himself from Death

It’s interesting to note that while the mysterious Mr. Monteith—described as a “fantastical Scot”—is credited as the namesake of the monteith, he’s never called its inventor. No individual is given credit for that, which is odd because the monteith is such a clever creation and, for a time, it was much in demand.

Plenty to Go Around
The records of the Society of Apothecaries of London from 1689 mention a plan to sell a quantity of the society’s old silver spoons and assorted items to buy a silver “monteth,” which was decorated and engraved to the society’s specifications.

In 1704, Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, sent a letter to Robert Harley, the first Earl of Oxford, describing some activities of the Royston Club. “They used to Drink Excessively, and do a Thousand Extravagant Things, but they behave much Better now…” he wrote. “They Have a Monteth of Silver of about 4 Gallons which cost them 50 (pounds) [roughly $5,850 today]. They raise Some Fines and Forfeitures, which Formerly were improved to the Encrease of Drunkeness, but now they do Some Charity’s, and are much reformed.”

That same year, the philosopher John Locke wrote to a friend asking for an estimate on the cost of a “good fair monteth strong in silver.” The friend’s estimate put the price at roughly $2,700 in today’s currency.

Other records, letters and diary entries mention monteiths, usually when recounting a particularly memorable party in a particularly memorable home. As a centerpiece whose presence was tied directly to the consumption of alcohol, a monteith would have made an impression on guests—and what host or hostess doesn’t strive to do just that?

Punching Things Up
Although they weren’t created for the purpose, monteiths frequently served as punch bowls. Those that were made for this dual purpose often had detachable notched rims that could be removed for serving punch and replaced for wine service. Other monteiths—such as those made of porcelain, earthenware or glass—were intended for one purpose only.

Nonetheless, monteiths occasionally were put to unanticipated uses. The best example comes from George Mason IV, the “Founding Father” who drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights (which preceded the U.S. Bill of Rights). In his will, dated 1773, Mason writes: “I confirm unto [my son George Mason V] his right and a large silver Bowl given him by my Mother, in which all my children have been christened, and which I desire may remain in the family unaltered for that purpose.”

That large silver bowl was probably purchased by George Mason IV’s grandfather, who died in 1715. It’s still in the collection of Gunston Hall, the Mason family home in Virginia. George Mason IV might have used it as a baptismal vessel for his children’s christenings (all 12 of them!), but it was designed for quite a different purpose: It is unmistakably a monteith.

Leslie Gilbert Elman writes about antiques and other subjects for Design NJ.