Although most of the Beall-Dawson House is furnished with period-appropriate antiques – with a focus on items from Montgomery County – the museum is not filled with original-to-the-House furnishings. However, thanks to Dawson descendants, MCHS does have a number of family pieces on display throughout the House. Some are more easily overlooked than others, so let’s take a look today at one of the smaller artifacts that you may not have noticed: A silver plate cake basket, which can often be found in the Parlor.
This pedestal-footed basket dates from the last quarter of the 19th century, probably 1870s-90s. It features a scalloped beaded edge; a flange pierced in a formal geometric design accented with leaves, which curves downward into a plain center well; and a bail handle with stylized design, centered with a plain oval cabochon. The bowl is a foot across, and with the handle raised the basket is nearly a foot tall.
Because there is no maker’s mark, it is difficult to pin down a more specific date. The round bowl and pedestal foot are typical of the 1870s-80s, but only in the most general sense; for example, the 1896 Marshall Field & Co. catalog included eighteen different cake basket options of different sizes, shapes, and designs, including pieces similar to ours. There’s nothing about our basket that shouts out a particular year or fashion. That’s not to say that this is a generic or boring piece, however. The ornate design, including both engraving and piercing, would likely put this at the higher end of the price scale. A triple-plate silver basket, without piercing, in the 1886 Bloomingdale’s catalog was available for $3.25 ($83 in 2013 dollars); the 1896 Marshall Field options ranged from $4.50 ($124 in 2013) to a “silver, engraved, gold-lined” option for $14.40 ($397 in 2013).Silver cake baskets were a common sight in upper-class U.S. and European households in the 18th and early 19th centuries. (Here’s an example from 1788, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, made by Hester Bateman of London.) With the introduction of electroplating in the mid 19th century, cheaper silver plate and mass-produced examples came onto the market, so middle-class families could think of adding a stylish, elegant cake basket to the sideboard or tea table.
The image that comes to mind today might be of a round birthday-type cake squeezed under the handle and then perched precariously on the bowl, but these dishes were used for the display and serving of small tea cakes, which are certainly a better fit for the form. I’ve not so far found any historic images of one in use, but they’re mentioned in entertainment guides and cookbooks of the 19th century, such as the following two table/menu guides (from this handy source, compiling descriptions of appropriate ways to hold an afternoon tea):
A pitcher of ice-water, with small tumblers surrounding it, may occupy one corner, and a basket or plate of cake the other.
“Arrangement of Table, and Bills of Fare, for Tea,” from The American System of Cookery, Mrs. T.J. Crowen (1847)
Variation [on the Afternoon Tea] on a more elaborate scale is the weekly ‘At Home,’ which has grown in popularity with many hostesses . . . . The menu may include both tea and coffee or tea and chocolate. There may be one or two kinds of dainty sandwiches and baskets or plates of fancy cakes . . . . A dish of fine bonbons may also be passed.
Consolidated Library of Modern Cooking and Household Recipes, Christine Terhune Herrick, editor-in-chief (1905)
Although many sources suggest that cake baskets fell out of fashion in the early 20th century, the 1927 Sears catalog offered a few examples (including a $4.00 ($53 in 2013) gold-plated pedestal dish, headed “Gifts that add to the table’s charm”), and one still might bring out Grandma’s antique upon occasion:
An old-fashioned cake basket lends a certain stately dignity to the tea table and a finely etched or cut glass plate is lovely for sandwiches.
Alice Foote MacDougall’s Cook Book, Alice Foote MacDougall (1935)
The basket was donated in 1985 by Amelia Somervell Farmer (Mrs. William T.) Nicholson, daughter of Priscilla Beall Dawson Farmer (1879-1947). Priscilla was the daughter of John and Amelia Somervell Dawson, who lived and raised their family in the Beall-Dawson House; Priscilla lived here until her 1914 marriage, and – since she and her husband lived in Redland, a few miles away – she stayed closely involved with the family home. When she donated the basket to the Historical Society, Mrs. Nicholson indicated that it was originally from the Beall-Dawson House; our then-Director noted “how delighted we were to have the silver compote come back to the House . . . . Each piece that has ‘lived’ here before has special meaning.”
When Margaret Dawson (Priscilla’s sister, who lived in the House all her life) died in 1937, her belongings were first inventoried, and then sold. Some of the Beall and Dawson family pieces in our collections can be found on one list or the other – for example, John Dawson’s desk was purchased at the 1937 estate sale by Mrs. Nicholson, and donated to us many years later – but this cake basket is not easily identified. Possibly Priscilla had already taken ownership of the basket before her sister’s death, though the particular circumstances aren’t known; Mrs. Nicholson told us only that it was from the House. Was it one of many similar pieces, part of a set, or a particular favorite? If it’s a tad earlier than I think, perhaps it was a wedding gift for Amelia and John (married 1871), passed on to their daughter; if it’s rather later than the estimated date, it might have been a wedding present for Priscilla herself (1914). Amelia Dawson died relatively young, in 1896, and maybe her children were given a chance to choose a favorite piece, a reminder of their mother, for their own. At this point, we really don’t know.
A side note on condition: Yes, our friend here is not looking shiny and new. In part this is because some of the silver plating is wearing thin, exposing the plainer metal underneath. Our previous silver curator believed that there was a deliberate gold tint to the leaves on the piercing, which now simply looks rather discolored. The basket has been poorly polished in the past (including by MCHS); in the photo below, what at first glance looks like some kind of white inlay is in fact layers of polish residue that was left behind. We have not polished this piece in some time, because over-polishing will help to remove the plating that’s left, and because cleaning, polishing, and coating museum silver requires a very particular regimen which, as the National Park Service’s Conserve O Gram notes, “should not be undertaken lightly.” For now we’ll leave it be, rather than doing a quick – but, in the end, damaging – fix with commercial polish.