Mirroring History

A Silver Plated Tea Set


This silver-plated tea set may appear on the surface to be a simple assortment of serving containers. But what has this set seen, what has it heard?

Curator Fath Davis Ruffins (National Museum of American History) introduces us to the family who owned the tea set, while Nancy Bercaw (National Museum of African American History and Culture) explores how domestic objects like these are witnesses to history. Finally, Kendra Greendeer (National Museum of the American Indian) investigates what gleams on the surface of the tea set with a brief history of how silver became a material associated with the Navajo people.

See our discussion questions before reading. 

An Abolitionist Family

Fath Davis Ruffins, Museum Curator, Home and Community Life, NMAH

Edwin Frederick Howard and his wife, Joanna Louise Turpin Howard, were prominent members of the free African American community of Boston. By the 1850s, they made their home in the fashionable West End, a neighborhood with a large number of free black people. Both of them followed their family traditions and were very active in the abolitionist movement to end slavery. Mr. Howard owned his own businesses and was both a barber and a caterer, probably to the wealthy white population. Mrs. Howard remained at home to raise their three children, all of whom attended college.

According to the inscription, a friend gave Mrs. Howard this inexpensive plated tea set in 1858. Tea drinking was an afternoon or evening social affair where adults and young people gathered to enjoy each other’s company. Family tradition holds that the service was used in hosting abolitionist luminaries such as Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips. The tea service remained in the Howard family until about 2000, when descendants placed these and other items up for auction.

  • Portrait of Mrs. Joanna L. Howard
    Portrait of Mrs. Joanna L. Howard. Colored American Magazine, vol. 5, 1902, p. 211.
  • Portrait of New England abolitionist Wendell Phillips, circa 1855-1865
    Portrait of New England abolitionist Wendell Phillips, ca. 1855-1865. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
  • Portrait of Frederick Douglass in 1870
    Portrait of Frederick Douglass. Photograph by George Frances Schreiber, 1870, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division




What’s the Tea? Stirring Up Black Activism

Nancy Bercaw, Museum Curator, NMAAHC

Joanna Howard’s family recounts that two renowned abolitionists, Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips, drank tea at their Boston home. For the Howard descendants, this tea set is a touchstone to their family’s activism. At the Smithsonian, this family heirloom provides a window into the domestic life of black organizers and serves as a reminder that for African Americans social justice often began at home. 

In Boston and across the country, laws denied African Americans access to public spaces where they might meet to organize against slavery or for equal rights. So, African Americans turned to black-owned spaces—churches, schools, homes, and their own businesses—to organize for justice. The Howard home was one such place. By serving tea in her home, Joanna Howard could meet with the prominent abolitionists with less fear of violent retribution. These acts helped knit together a network that survived and spanned many generations, involving their own children.

Three piece silver and ivory beverage service, including pot, sugar bowl, and creamer

This beverage service comes from Wormley’s Hotel at 15th and H Streets NW in D.C.—a black-owned, public space opened by James Wormley in 1871 and favored by politicians due to its proximity to the White House. See more
Gift of Charles Thomas Lewis​

The Howards’ daughter Adeline T. Howard served as the principal of the Wormley School, a school for black children in Washington, D.C. Interestingly, the NMAAHC collection includes a teapot associated with the name “Wormley.” African American businessman James Wormley, the namesake for the school, owned and operated Wormley’s Hotel—an establishment well known for fine dining that infamously became a site for secret political gatherings in 1877.




Adorned in Silver

Kendra Greendeer, Curatorial Resident, NMAI

Looking at this silver-plated tea service set from 1858, I’m struck not only by the role it played as a witness to history, but also by the silver plating as a decorative element, and how that creates a link to the artisans of tribal communities in the Southwest. Around the time this tea set was manufactured, a Mexican smith introduced silversmithing to the Navajo, or Diné, who currently reside in Arizona and New Mexico. Trading and trade routes were established across the hemisphere, and silver was only one of the many goods that were a part of this exchange. Navajo had integrated silver into their attire after conducting trade with Mexicans, Spaniards, and Plains Indians. American Indian tribes embraced trade goods, like silver, and other colonial novelties and adapted them as elements of daily life. 

Portrait of a Navajo weaver who lives near Wide Ruins, Arizona. She is wearing a beaded necklace and silver jewelry, 1948.
Photograph by John Collier Jr. (1913–1992)

Commercialization of Navajo arts began at the end of the 19th century, as traders collected and sold Navajo jewelry and rugs at trading posts and train stations surrounding the reservation. Flawlessly executed silver jewelry became a symbol of both Navajo culture and Southwest tourism. The sitter for the above portrait, a Diné (Navajo) woman, is adorned in silver buttons, silver earrings, a naja (squash blossom) necklace, and a concho belt.

John Collier Jr. intended this 1948 photograph to document Navajo life in the Southwest. Collier, the son of a commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, spent most of his life in New Mexico. He made this portrait for Farm Quarterly and later included it in a portfolio on Navajo life with captions written with the assistance of Diné tribal members.

  • Diné (Navajo) buttons, conchos, butterfly belt buckle
    Diné (Navajo) buttons, conchos, butterfly belt buckle, New Mexico and Arizona, 1890–1940. Counterclockwise from top: two buttons, twelve buttons and conchos, seven conchos, and buckle. Photograph by Ernest Amoroso
  • Navajo silversmith in a room surrounded by silver and tools
    Navajo silversmith, ca. 1900. Photograph by Adam Clark Vroman (1856–1916)
  • Silver and turquise bracelet
    A contemporary art piece made by Lee Yazzie, a member of the renowned jewelry-making family, 1987. Photograph by Michael S. Waddell

Discussion Questions

  • What does the silver-plated tea set tell us about the socioeconomic class of people involved in the antislavery movement?
  • In what ways could class differences affect the anti-slavery movement?

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