Featured Object: Samovar
- Post Date9/29/2016
- AuthorSimone Kaiser
- Reading Time3 minute read
The samovar, an often elaborately decorated metal water boiler used for making tea, is the epitome of Russian hospitality. In Russia, drinking tea became a tradition and an established custom at the tsar’s court and among the urban population in the late 19th century. Tea often followed supper or was drunk in the afternoon. A samovar enabled the hostess to serve unexpected guests any time by keeping hot water at the ready. Samovar in Russian literally means “self-boiler” and the technology was designed for maximum efficiency, boiling water much faster than a regular pot. Samovars are used in Russia, Eastern and Southeastern European countries, and the Middle East.
Antique samovars such as this one were heated with coal or charcoal and consisted of multiple pieces: a body containing the water, a faucet near the bottom, a vertical metal pipe running along the container in which the fuel is burned to heat it the water, and a teapot that can be placed on top of the body after the water boils. The teapot is used to brew a strong concentrate of tea, called zavarka in Russian, which is then diluted with boiled water from the main container. Typically, samovars are made out of iron, copper, brass, bronze, or tin, and they vary in size. The Spurlock example, about 17 inches tall, is made of brass. Its exterior is hammered and encircled by stamped Russian medallions, with two side handles covered with wood. Inside, it has a flue, a floral charcoal grill, and an ash basin.
Our samovar dates back to the 19th or early 20th century and was made in the town of Tula, 100 miles south of Moscow. Since the early 18th century, Tula had been the seat of an important iron and steel industry and rapidly became a trademark for artistic steel items. Metal works in Tula produced not only weapons but also luxury furniture and domestic and decorative steel items. Tula was also the most important production center of samovars. In the Russian language, there even exists the popular idiom “to go to Tula with your own samovar,” describing a pointless or superfluous action.
Most references state that samovars were first created in Russia, but an archeological discovery suggests that the technology had its origins in what is now Azerbaijan: a vessel found in Shaki might be the oldest pottery samovar—up to 3,6000 years old—although it differs in shape and purpose from modern samovars. It was used for boiling soup or herbed water rather than for making tea. Tea originated in China and was not introduced in Russia until the Middle Ages.