Saturday, October 10, 2009

Silver Coffee Service, A Story

When my husband was a young junior Naval officer and we were stationed in Norfolk VA, I was asked to help at a big reception in the Officer's Club on base. The club was a neo-classical, columned building which had been a part of the 1907 Jamestown Exhibition, built on what was then Sewell's Point. Many beautiful and some extravagant buildings were built at the time prior to making it into a Naval base. The O'Club and some buildings from the Exhibition survive to this day.

The main room of the club was appropriately impressive and was set up with a large table at one end. Placed at each end of the table was a massive silver service, much like the one pictured. One end was for coffee, the other for tea. In between was a sea of white and gold-banded teacups and plates of hors d'oeuvres.

I had arrived in my Sunday-best clothes and was asked to sit at one end of the big table and man the coffee pot. And MAN is the operative word here! That puppy was heavy. I began serving coffee sitting, but being 5'2" tall meant that I had to lift that pot high enough to aim the spigot at a cup and not spill a drop. It became immediately apparent this wasn't going to work, so I stood to serve. I was very amused when the lady 'way at the other end of the table stood up also.

New pots of hot coffee were brought out from the kitchen to recharge the pot. By the time my 2 or 3 hours were up, I really felt like I had had a workout!

So let me explain about these silver services. It had been the tradition that early in the Navy's history, large, heavy tea services were part of every major ship and base's equipment for entertaining visiting dignitaries and for important social events. (The service pictured here is one from a battleship*.) They were often made special order from major silver manufacturers and double or triple plated to protect from them the corrosive sea air. While ships were deployed, many times replacement pieces or special pieces were contracted for in the place the ship was moored. For instance, several years ago I found a set of silver finger bowls with the Naval insignia impressed on the sides.

Admiral's messes also had special-order china with the Navy crest and gold banding; heavy silverware was used in the officer's mess. My children thought it was a real treat to have dinner with the officers in the mess when my husband was also standing watch for a night. They learned early how to handle so many spoons and forks. They remember it now as very special and it was.

Today's military does not separate officers from enlisted personnel for food service and the clubs serve combined ranks these days, so many of these heavy silver tea and coffee services are now either in museums, or, in the case of battleships, they have gone back to the state for which the ship was named.

*This set is from the battleship North Carolina.

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