Tea kettles have been a necessary piece of kitchen equipment since tea was first introduced to the French aristocracy in Paris in 1636. Tea kettles were not only used for boiling water, but in some households they were also used to brew the tea itself, as a belief circulated widely that some metals -- such as cast iron -- actually helped enhance the flavour of the tea. Whether heated over an open fireplace, or kept warm at table by a spirit lamp, tea kettles of the 18th century were made from a variety of materials that could withstand the high temperatures of a direct flame. Depending on a family's financial circumstances and position, these materials could include sterling silver or, as in the case of many a pioneering family in the new American colonies, cast iron or copper.
While more expensive kettles made by artisan craftsmen -- such as silversmiths -- were usually marked, kettles made of humbler materials such as cast iron were usually unmarked, so that modern collectors often have to rely on their knowledge of shapes and design styles when trying to pinpoint a maker. If the kettle is indeed signed, you can typically find these maker's marks on the underside of the kettle, and on fancier kettles you may also find them on the underside of the legs or on the spirit burner apparatus.
Some of the most highly prized kettles from 18th century America are those made by the silversmith shop of Revere, founded by Paul Revere the elder and inherited by his son, the Paul Revere famed for his midnight ride from Boston to Lexington in 1775 to warn patriots that British troops were advancing. Both father and son were skilled craftsmen, and their elegant designs were often festooned with swirls and swags and pineapple finials, or chaste in their simplicity, following pure, unadorned lines. These designs, crafted in silver and pewter, helped create the standard for future American silversmiths. Original Revere kettles and tea paraphernalia are stamped "REVERE" on the underside. Rarely found, these pieces are extremely valuable to collectors today.
Other Makers and Marks
Since the 14th century, British silversmiths have used a system of hallmarks to identify the town of origin, the maker, the date and the silver content of any silver piece. From 1784 to 1890, these marks also included a sovereign head, which indicated the payment of duty taxes. Before 1831, the British symbol for sterling silver was the "lion passant guardant" -- a lion walking to the left, but turned full face. After 1831, the lion's face was in profile. Some of the famous silversmiths based in London included Paul de Lamerie -- possibly the most acclaimed of his generation, due to the beauty of his creations -- as well as Robert Abercrombie, Brent Moses and Matthew Boulton.
Authentic documentation, such as a letter containing family history, can date a tea kettle and may help identify its maker's marks. If possible, find out the history -- known to collectors and dealers as the "provenance" -- of the kettle, and if you have any documentation, make copies. Tea kettles made of more expensive materials such as pewter and copper are sometimes marked, while those made of artisan-type materials such as silver are usually marked by the master silversmith's shop where they were made. You can research a kettle with the aid of the many reference books and websites available, and antiques dealers and museum curators are usually happy to help collectors identify their pieces.
When identifying marks, you must be aware that it's inadvisable to clean an antique tea kettle without professional help. The wrong type of cleaning can destroy the patina of the kettle and decrease its aesthetic and even its monetary value considerably. That tarnished, blackened tea kettle could be a late 1700s signed piece from Paul Revere's silver shop, so leave any type of restoration or cleaning to experienced professionals only.