Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Drink of the Gods

QUESTION: I recently purchased what looks like a porcelain coffee pot. However, it has a decorative spout that has what seems like a bridge across its top. The floral design is delicately painted and on the bottom is stamped the name R.S. Prussia. Can you tell me anything about this piece?

ANSWER: What looks like a coffee pot is actually a chocolate pot, used by Victorians to serve hot chocolate on cold winter days.

By the mid-17th century, chocolate was well established and sought after by the well-to-do in Italy, France, Germany, and finally England. From the time Spanish explorers brought chocolate back to Europe, people served chocolate hot, making it more palatable by the addition of sugar, vanilla and jazmine. Since chocolate was expensive, only the wealthy could afford this exotic drink.

Mechanization during the Industrial Revolution made processing of cacao beans more efficient and brought down labor costs. A Dutch chemist, Coenraad Van Houten patented a process that defatted and alkalinized the chocolate in 1828, making possible the mass production of cheap chocolate in powdered and solid forms. 

As chocolate's popularity spread throughout the Continent, people needed vessels to serve it. Chocolate pots began to appear in a variety of forms and materials, including earthenware, tin, pewter, tin-plated copper, porcelain, gold, and silver.

Potters created the first commercial chocolate pots of earthenware, but by the early 19th century, porcelain ones began to appear, coinciding with the decrease in the cost of chocolate and its availability to everyone, regardless of their economic status. At the same time the porcelain chocolate pot changed. Since the cocoa made from the cacao bean dissolved in hot water, whipping the chocolate was no longer necessary, so the hole for the molinet—the wooden stirrer—originally placed in the lid of the pot was no longer needed. By the mid- to late 19th century, most porcelain companies produced chocolate pots with solid lids.

Factories began producing a variety of affordable chocolate pots for the average household. Production peaked in the mid-to late 1800s, but continued until the mid- 1900s when people’s preference switched from hot chocolate to coffee.

Due to the widespread popularity of hot chocolate, chocolate pots are readily available to collectors, both online and at shows and auctions. For example, eBay has over 500 chocolate pots listed in active auctions. Prices vary widely and depend on material, with silver pots being more expensive than porcelain pots. Value also depends on the age and maker, as well as where the pot is being sold.

While the average porcelain chocolate pot sells for about $100, the higher quality ones from Meissen and R.S. Prussia range in price from $500 to $5,000. Chocolate sets—a pot with six tall cups and sometimes saucers—tend to sell for more than individual pots. Also, larger pots and those with floral or scenic designs are more expensive than smaller ones without decoration. Unmarked pots and those from lesser-known factories often sell for less than $100.

Before starting a chocolate pot collection, examine a variety of chocolate pots being offered by reputable dealers. Read books on specific manufacturers such as Limoges; R.S.Prussia. and Nippon, and visit repronews.com, e-limoges.com and rsprussia.com online. Lastly, if you’re not sure of a chocolate pot's authenticity, don't buy it.

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