There was a time when I really wanted a soup tureen. I imagined how beautiful it would look in the place of honor on the table. A soup tureen is very evocative of hospitality. Even though now I think more about where I would store it, and wonder whether the soup didn’t just get cold before it was eaten, I still love a beautiful soup tureen.
This is one of two soup tureens in Gideon and Ellen Hixon’s house, and one of eight covered serving dishes of all kinds. They range in size from a platter that my 1-year-old granddaughter could fit on to a pint-size dish that might hold the cranberry sauce. This middling-size tureen holds about a gallon of soup.
There are two sets of china in our historic house museum, one Limoge and the other Spode. Here at the Historical Society we refer to them as the “good” china and the “everyday” china. This is the “everyday,” and by that we obviously do not mean to compare this to a set of ironstone dishes bought at Target or your mother’s Corelle. It is an older set of china that Mrs. Hixon replaced at some point with the newer and more fashionable Limoge. By the end of the 19th century these bright colors and busy patterns were being replaced with more delicate designs and paler, a more modern palette.
From the beginning of the 19th century the English ceramic manufacturer Spode was producing beautiful reproductions of Japanese Imari ware, which were often in primarily iron red and cobalt blue, like this tureen. The journey of a design influence can be fascinating and complex. Japanese Imari patterns were heavily influenced by contemporary textile patterns, and the most common natural dyes in the era were red and blue.
The large, imaginative floral design also reflects Indian textile designs. The Chinese were the first to admire and imitate Imari ware, and their imitations flooded the European market at a time when Japan had shut itself off from the rest of the world and was not trading. European china was a prestigious home furnishing in the United States, and so we have Ellen Pennell Hixon acquiring this lovely set sometime after her marriage to Gideon Hixon in 1861. I doubt very much that she was thinking about global trade routes or the history of the European ceramic industry when she set her table, yet her dishes made her a part of world history.
This tureen has a secret, which is right out there in the open but which I did not notice for some time. Last winter I gave a presentation to the Hixon House docents, or guides, on the Japanese ceramics in the house, and I used this tureen as an example of Japanese influence on European manufacturers. I handled the tureen to photograph it, put the image in a PowerPoint presentation, and then I talked at length while showing it on the screen during my talk. It was only after several minutes that I suddenly focused on the large cracks and the stitches running across them. I was amazed to realize that we were actually looking at an item that been broken into at least three pieces and repaired — and no one had noticed! The mending staples, or stitches, of wire are clearly visible across the front, and a slight discoloration from glue can also be seen along the crack line.
There’s no telling now when this occurred, or whether it happened during Mrs. Hixon’s lifetime or after her death. It may have been broken and mended during the first decades of the Historical Society’s tenure. Or maybe it was one of those college girls who lived in the house when it was a women’s dormitory in the 1940s. It’s a secret we may never know the truth about, but I am grateful the tureen was mended with such expertise and that it is still here for us to enjoy.
This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on May 27, 2017.