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Hot Water Urn

Made by Richard Humphreys, American (born West Indies), 1750 - 1832. Engraved by James Smither, English (active Philadelphia), 1741 - 1797. Presented to Charles Thomson, American (born Ireland), 1729 - 1824, Secretary of the First Continental Congress, 1774.

Made in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States, North and Central America




21 1/2 x 10 1/2 x 8 inches (54.6 x 26.7 x 20.3 cm)

Curatorial Department:
American Art

* Gallery 101, American Art, first floor

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
Purchased with funds contributed by The Dietrich American Foundation, 1977

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Used to dispense hot water when serving tea, this urn is the earliest documented object made in colonial America in the Neoclassical style. Its form, arcade and bead moldings, and stylized rosettes and laurel leaves all derive from English designs inspired by ancient Roman sources. By the mid-1780s this style, which came to be known as “Federal” after the American Revolution, had taken hold in Philadelphia. In contrast, the engraved cartouche by James Smither features the curvilinear, organic ornament of the earlier Rococo style. The First Continental Congress commissioned the urn in 1774 for presentation to its secretary, Charles Thomson, perhaps intending its classical qualities to reference the ancient Roman republic as a model for the fledgling American government.

Additional information:
  • PublicationPhiladelphia Museum of Art Handbook (2014 Edition)

    Among the Museum’s unrivaled collection of Philadelphia silver is this impressive urn by Richard Humphreys. Used for dispensing hot water for tea, it is the earliest documented object made in colonial America in the Neoclassical style. While the urn’s overall shape, arcade and bead moldings, and rosette and laurel-leaf decorations were based on contemporary English prototypes in the distinctive Neoclassical style of Scottish architect Robert Adam, the curvilinear, organic ornament of its engraved cartouche reflects the Rococo style still popular in the colonies in the 1770s. The First Continental Congress presented the urn to Charles Thomson, its secretary, in 1774, perhaps intending the vessel’s classical style to evoke the ancient Roman Republic as a model for the fledgling American government. In the decade following the end of the Revolutionary War, Neoclassicism became the preferred style for silver made in Philadelphia and other American cities. David Barquist, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2014, p. 263.

  • PublicationPhiladelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections

    This hot water urn is one of the earliest known pieces of American silver in the Neoclassical style. Its impressive scale and innovative design are characteristic of the type of American silver commissioned as presentation gifts during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In 1774 this example was presented by the First Continental Congress, sitting in Philadelphia, to Charles Thomson, its first secretary, in recognition of his service to the governmental body. While well versed in the popular Rococo style, Richard Humphreys, one of Philadelphia's leading silversmiths, used this important commission as an opportunity to experiment with the latest fashion for Neoclassical designs. Based on contemporary English prototypes, its classical urn shape, acanthus leaf and rosette decorations, and squared base with ball feet embody this new style in American silver, which would dominate domestic tastes some ten years later, during the Federal period. Jack L. Lindsey, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 262.

* Works in the collection are moved off view for many different reasons. Although gallery locations on the website are updated regularly, there is no guarantee that this object will be on display on the day of your visit.

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