Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Object Details

John Coburn (American, 1724-1803; active 1750-1790)
ca. 1750
United States: Massachusetts: Boston
North American
metal; silver
Overall: 6 1/16 in x 9 3/8 in x 3 3/8 in; 15.39875 cm x 23.8125 cm x 8.5725 cm
Graham Gallery, New York; Ex-collection the Dietrich American Foundation, Philadelphia; to the Fine Arts Committee through purchase.
In block letters around the center point on the bottom, "O/T*R," for Timothy (1717-1767) and Rebecca (Taylor) (1727-1771) Orne of Salem, Massachusetts; the Orne family arms within a rococo cartouche on one side. Marks: In block letters within a rectangle, struck four times around the center point on the bottom, "I.COBURN."
Credit Line
Funds donated by Miss Louise Ines Doyle
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

Object Essay

Much has been written about the history of tea in the West and about its tremendous impact on commerce, economics, politics, and the arts. Less has been recorded about the enormous social changes that tea introduced. During the 17th century, many social occasions were exclusively male, and taverns and coffee houses were frequented principally by men. At first tea was exorbitantly expensive and therefore was consumed only in wealthy households, but by the mid–18th century, tea drinking had become a universal American custom.      

While gentlemen undertook the making of punch, and sometimes the decanted wine, the lady of the house prepared and served tea. Tea drinking thus became a domestic entertainment, and an appropriate occasion for the mingling of the sexes. Every household aspired to own a proper tea service. Some Western tea equipment was copied from Chinese wares; other forms were borrowed from existing European objects originally designed for other purposes.1See Roth, 61–69; Belden 1983, 248–53.

This teapot was made for Timothy and Rebecca Orne of Salem, Massachusetts. Timothy Orne was a prominent merchant and shipowner engaged in trade with Europe and the West Indies. On April 29, 1757, he recorded the purchase of this silver teapot and a silver cream pot in his ledger: 

To a Silvr Creampot                                                17.3.9
To a Silvr Teapot wt 17:oz 15dwt @ 50/                44.7.6
To Makeing of Ditto                                               25.0.0
To Engraveing ye Arms on Do                                 3.0.0
To Cash pd for the Handle                                        1.5.02Timothy Orne Ledger, 1757, Orne Papers, Essex Institute, Salem, Massachusetts. Orne supplied twenty-four ounces of silver in partial payment for the cream pot and teapot.

When originally fashioned, the teapot had a cast spout, probably much like the ones on teapots Coburn made for the two other Salem merchants—Samuel Gardner and Benjamin Pickman.3Buhler 1972, 1:307, 312. Coburn also made a sugar bowl engraved with the Orne arms, which was probably a gift to Rebecca Orne when she married Joseph Cabot in 1768 (Buhler 1972, 1: 317). Metal analysis reveals that the straight spout of soldered sheet silver now on the pot was a fairly early replacement (ca. 1785– 1800). It is much lighter than the original spout would have been, a fact that accounts for the discrepancy between the current weight of the pot and the weight recorded in Orne’s ledger.

John Coburn was born in York, Maine, on May 25, 1724 and received his training in Boston, probably with a member of the Edwards family. He had his own shop near the Town Dock by 1750, held various town offices in Boston, and became a prominent craftsman. He left town during the British occupation, but returned in 1776. His combined occupations of silversmith and landlord apparently made him wealthy, for he listed himself as a “gentleman” in the Boston city directory of 1796.4Flynt and Fales, 185; Dow, 43; Buhler 1972, 1: 302.

Coburn’s specialty seems to have been tea wares. This apple-shaped teapot, with a slightly domed, hinged lid and twisted finial, is very similar to several others he marked.5Other similar Coburn teapots include the two made for the daughters of Thomas Welles of Glastonbury, Connecticut. See Great River, 288–89; and Flynt and Fales, 136–38. All of his teapots employ the same cast upper handle socket, with its pleasing rococo furl and finely engraved rococo lambrequins, or collars, around the mouth. Coburn probably owned a drawing or printed design for the engraved rococo cartouche with which he surrounded the coat of arms, since several cartouches on his silver appear to have been based on the same design source.6A pear-shaped covered sugar bowl in the style popular around 1765 is also marked by Coburn and engraved with the Orne arms (see Buhler 1972, 1: 317). The bowl looks appropriate with the teapot but appears to have been engraved by a different hand and may have been made for the next generation of the family. The sugar bowl’s history provides a possible partial provenance for the teapot (ibid.): Rebecca (1727–1771) and Timothy Orne (1717–1767); their daughter, Rebecca (1748–1818), married 1768 Capt. Joseph Cabot (1745/6–1774); their daughter Rebecca Orne Cabot (b. 1769); probably bequeathed to her nephew, Joseph Sebastien Cabot (1796–1874), married Susan Burley—no issue; subsequent history unknown until acquired by donor. The finial is possibly an early replacement, as it differs from examples on other Coburn teapots and appears to be a little large for the size of the pot.

Jennifer F. Goldsborough and Barbara McLean Ward

Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.