The gravy boat sat in the china cabinet in our dining room as I grew up. We did not use the dining room very often, and I don’t ever remember using the gravy boat. Maybe it was too precious, or maybe all the cracks in the glaze made it unsafe to use. We didn’t have gravy often- my mother was a minimalist cook, plus she would have had her own gravy boat to match her china. So this lovely object sat in the china cabinet, which really was a museum of our family history and reminder of times gone by. I would lovingly dust it a few times per year, thinking of my grandparents, and how life must have been for my mother growing up, the youngest in a family of eight. It was her job to dust just as it was mine, and I felt her fear of dropping such a beautiful object or even chipping such a special piece that showcased the assets of a family.
So what is a ‘gravy boat’? A gravy boat, sauce boat, or sauciere is an oval table service piece that looks like a low, elongated pitcher. Most have handles for pouring out the sauce; others, such as this, are lower and have one or two long lips at the end, and may have a handle or not. Sauce could be poured but usually a gravy ladle would be used if there was no handle on the gravy boat. Gravy boats had a matching oval plate or saucer that was attached, or it might be separate, as in this piece. The saucer would have a depression into which the foot of the gravy boat sat so it didn’t slide if slippery gravy was dripped onto the plate, or while it was passed hand-to-hand around the big table. The saucer was also important to prevent gravy stains on the nice tablecloth- and that would have been cloth of the old fashioned kind- a linen or cotton that would also need starch and ironing after washing. (They had no quick-wipe plastic or easy care permanent-press polyester tablecloths like we have today.) A matching porcelain gravy ladle might have also been used, or the family might use their sterling silver or silverplate gravy ladle. The oval shape and spout-like ends of the gravy boat are designed to pour but also to hold the ladle without it slipping down into the gravy, though proper manners dictated that the gravy ladle at least start the meal sitting on the saucer. (See source #4 for an example of a similar set with plate.) I do not remember a plate for our treasured heirloom, so it was probably broken long before my time.
The decoration on this gravy boat is so very delicate and pretty. Sweet pansies or violas were hand painted in two lucious purples, and the raised gold is set off by beautiful white porcelain. It is authentic Noritake Nippon Hand Painted china as it has the correct mark, plus I know the chain of custody. The gravy boat would have been made between 1890 and 1918, probably, as the McKinley Tariff Act required “Japan” be used on imported pieces after 1921, although Japan had already started using the name of their country on export china shortly after WWI.
This lovely object belonged to Anna Mae Beerbower (1881-1954) and her husband, William Gerard Helbling (1882-1971)- or Gerard William Helbling- he switched the order of his names throughout the years as good Germans often did. They were married 24 November 1904 in St. Louis, Missouri, the year of the World’s Fair. Maybe this was a wedding gift, or a special Christmas, anniversary, or birthday gift. The family was of modest means, but such lovely objects graced their table, even if there was not enough income to buy a lot of food, especially in the tough economies of the 1920s through the 1940s.
Interestingly, a daughter of the family was named Viola Gertrude Helbling (1913-1971). I wonder if my grandmother was partial to violas, the flowers? They have always been a favorite of mine, and my mother loved them too.
Somehow, KFC gravy in a styrofoam cup with plastic lid seems even more unappetizing after thinking about this lovely heirloom gravy boat.
Notes and References:
1) Family oral tradition.
2) Noritake Nippon mark: http://www.noritakecollectorsguild.info/researchers/lisalondon/fakenipponguide.pdf
3) Noritake history: http://www.antique-marks.com/noritake-china.html
4) Similar: http://www.rubylane.com/item/274555-20-229/Vintage-Early-1900-Noritake-Gold
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