Earlier this summer, I spent a couple of days at an academic gathering in Charleston, South Carolina, where, at some point, the conversation turned to the Russian samovar as one of those things to which, curiously enough, so many American Jewish households lay claim. By rights, we should have been talking about mint juleps; instead, tea had us all riled up.
Tea had those who lived under the Romanovs equally caffeinated. Though its consumption and with it, the samovar, or self-boiler, a metal urnlike contraption fashioned out of silver, brass, copper, or iron, took hold of the Russian body politic only in the 19th century, the practice and the object quickly became central to the nation’s identity, even twinned icons of Russianness.
“Tea drinking is one of the great institutions in Russia; the outward and visible symbol of this institution is the somavar [sic],” observed one British traveler to Russia in 1875, his observations echoed by writers as diverse as Pushkin and Dostoyevsky.
Increasingly available, black tea imported from China was widely touted as an alternative to vodka, or, better yet, as one of life’s essentials. “Tea is necessary in Russia, almost like air,” declared the Russian Journal of Generally Useful Information in 1837. Concomitantly, the samovar, which made it possible to heat up to six quarts of water quickly and efficiently without going to the trouble of firing up the stove or kindling the kitchen fireplace, became increasingly popular. What the kettle was to the British, the samovar was to the Russians.
Manufactured in droves by factories in Tula, an industrial area, rich in metal ore, some 200 kilometers south of Moscow, samovars came in a wide variety of materials and shapes. Some were made of silver, others of inexpensive metal alloys. Some were paunchy and full-bellied; others as sleekly shaped as a classical vase. Virtually all were meant to be used; today a goodly number, prized more for their aesthetic appeal than their utility, are on display at the Tula Museum of Samovars.
Russians came by their samovars in any number of ways. Itinerant peddlers stocked them, as did the stalls of rural marketplaces and the shelves of metropolitan lavki, or small shops. Tula’s wares were also available at huge international annual fairs such as Novgorod, whose 10 square miles of jampacked exhibition space featured bounty from every corner of the world, as well as “battalions, regiments, brigades, corps d’armée of somovars [sic] marshaled before one,” colorfully related a Western visitor to the fair. “Every household in Russia with its somovar and 60 millions of Russians! Here be elements for a roaring trade!”
The samovar loomed large in Jewish immigrant culture, too. A hefty proportion of Russian Jewish immigrants to the United States lugged the heavy and bulky contraption to the New World, prompting one observer at the turn of the 20th century to note that they “bring their samovars with them as carefully as they do their feather-beds, expecting, probably, to find themselves in a wilderness.”
A familiar sight, a tangible source of comfort and reassurance in a strange new environment, the samovar also came in handy when money was tight. A financial instrument as well as a domestic device, it could be pawned for anywhere from $2 to $5 (then a tidy sum of money), helping to tide over an immigrant family when the rent or the grocer’s bill came due.
It didn’t take long, though, before samovars were discarded. Sometimes, the devices sprang a leak, and finding an American tinker with the requisite skills to mend them proved either too difficult or too expensive. More frequently still, they were cast aside and abandoned in favor of more modern conveniences such as cast-iron tea kettles perched atop a coal or a gas stove.
Once cherished, these Old World implements fell out of favor fast. The “second generation never seems to use them,” reported Philip G. Hubert Jr., writing in 1895 in the pages of the high-toned decorative arts magazine The Art Interchange, about his trawling through New York’s bric-a-brac stores and pawnshops, where many a samovar, its luster dimmed for want of attention, now kept company with a jumble of junk.
Captivated as much by the object’s association with Russian political intrigue—“what a tale would it tell could it only talk!”—as by its form, Hubert made a point of collecting them. He also made a point of noting that, given the number of samovars brought into the United States within the previous 20 years, they were not apt to be mistaken for something else. By now, the writer observed as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, most of his readers were “familiar with their looks.”
Even as the “tea kettle of the Russians” lost its way in the New World, tea drinking held its own, especially among Jewish immigrant consumers. Well before Swee-Touch-Nee tea in its shiny red, faux lacquerlike tin traded on its product’s association with both China and Russia to become a midcentury American Jewish staple—its vaguely Sino-sounding brand name was actually a reworking of tsvetochny, the Russian word for “flowery”—B. Fischer’s Black Package Russian Caravan Tea was all the rage.
A tea, coffee, and spices importer established in the 1870s, B. Fischer & Co. capitalized on the presence of increasing numbers of Russian immigrants in the United States who yearned for the strong black tea they had consumed several times a day back in the old country. Touting the virtues of its overseas brand—its “absolute purity and economical possibilities” were reportedly hard to beat—the company was most adroit when it came to marketing.
Joining hoopla with history, B. Fischer & Co. devised a float for New York’s Industrial Centennial Parade of 1889 replete with camels, bearded men in funny hats, and exotic foliage to remind consumers of the far-flung overland tea trade of yesteryear from which Black Package Russian Caravan Tea took its name. More stationary representations of the caravan adorned its packaging along with a stamp that read “Genuine Russian Tea” in both English and Cyrillic letters.
The imaginative importer made much of American history, too. “Had King George sent BLACK PACKAGE RUSSIAN CARAVAN TEA, instead of China tea, history might have chronicled a different disposition of the three cargoes in Boston Harbor,” one advertisement confidently declared in 1900, deploying the Boston Tea Party to attract public attention for its brew.
Decades later, in the 1920s, the company turned to Jewish history as a selling point. A cardboard poster or billboard, now in the collection of the Jewish Museum in New York, depicts an old-fashioned, multigenerational family celebrating a Passover Seder. The papa, a hefty yarmulke perched on his head, takes center stage; off to the side, his wife pours hot water from a bulbous samovar, as she prepares to offer cups of tea—Russian Caravan Tea, of course—to those assembled around the holiday table. The warm, amber-hued tones of the illustrated advertisement brought home the smooth blend of age-old Jewish ritual with time-honored Russian practice.
B. Fischer & Co. was equally inventive in its packaging, coming up with a distinctive shape for its helpings of tea: what it proudly called a “parallelopiped.” More of a rhomboid than a rectangle, its singular form enabled the company’s boxes of tea to stand out among its competitors, giving rise to the notion that shape itself could be the stuff of a trademark.
And therein lies a tale. It might not be the kind Hubert fancied—“blood-curdling plots” against the czars set the samovar collector’s pulse racing—but it’s a good yarn all the same, one that brings into relief the cutthroat economic practices characteristic of late 19th-century America.
In the early 1890s, B. Fischer & Co. brought suit against B. Blank, a neighboring wholesale and commission merchant, for what we today would define as copyright infringement. It alleged that he had deliberately misled consumers, and cut into B. Fischer’s profits, by passing off his own, decidedly inferior brand of tea as a B. Fischer product.
Blank, it was said, used similar packaging and wordage, knowing full well that his customers wouldn’t know any better. After all, the court documents relate, most of them were “ignorant and illiterate people”—largely “Russian Hebrews of the east side” who, in the customary gloom of their shopping places, were in no position to distinguish between one brand of tea or another, especially if they looked alike.
Mr. Blank gave as good as he got. In a judicial instance of the pot calling the kettle black, he charged B. Fischer & Co. with being a fraud, its fabled Russian black tea neither black nor Russian, but a common American blend, through and through.
To no avail. The court ruled against the wily merchant, calling on him to cease forthwith. He didn’t. Insisting on his integrity as well as that of his product, Blank continued his deception for several more years, accruing steep fines along the way.
Trafficking in tea, it seemed, was a murky business; so, too, the afterlife of the samovar. Anecdotal material about the Jewish immigrant experience makes much of the Russian tea urn, likening it to a veritable heirloom passed on from one generation to the next and claiming it as a Jewish object right up there with the kiddush cup and the candlesticks. But in most American Jewish households, little is known about the circumstances of the samovar’s history, much less how to use it. Instead of bubbling away with a full head of steam, American Jewry’s collection of samovars sits on a shelf or decorates a sideboard, mute and inert.
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Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.