Whatever Happened to the Epergne?

19th century William IV Sheffield silverplate and cut glass epergne.

You know, the epergne, that shiny tree made of silver and crystal for the purpose of holding anything your heart desires. So inviting is the epergne as it holds out small dishes of candy, crackers, nuts, bonbons, fruit and flowers etc., to your guests as if to say here, please have a piece, you’re our dear guest. The epergne has been replaced, by numerous dishes that cram our tables on holidays, as if to say get it yourself, if you can find it, in this quagmire of party eats. Cereal bowls filled with pretzels, “fancy” assorted nuts out of the can, plastic veggie platters destined to strangle the earth for hundreds of years from one night’s gathering; it is these that have led to the demise of the epergne.

Befuddled at polite society’s transition from beauty to cheap junk, I consulted a graduate student pursuing her master’s degrees in decorative arts. Renee Corbino, from George Mason University’s Smithsonian program and a long time cataloger of decorative arts for a local auction house, explains that the epergne met its end at the turn of the 19th century. Rebellion against the lavish decadence and consumption of the Victorian era, coupled with utilitarianism arising from the depression era and world wars had pretty much done in the epergne. Beauty gave way to necessity and subsequent generations have continued the trend.

Jessamyn Modrak, a master’s in decorative arts from the Corcoran School of Art and Design, had a more concise answer. According to Ms. Modrak, the epergne was Victorian and everything Victorian is big, cumbersome and out of style. So today we are left with the fiesta style three tiered dishes-o-tapas – a mere space saver sure to make you shudder and a shadow of the glory days of entertainment and luxury. The modern world and fiestaware has made a mockery of the aesthetic beauty intermingled with pleasure the epergne has come to symbolize in my mind.

From Cul de Sac by Richard Thompson (c)

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About Berkeley Brown
Anson Brown, co-founder and principal of Auction Exclusive, is an expert in rare books, prints, antique maps, historical manuscripts and autographs. He is also well versed in a variety of fine and decorative arts and antiques and has 7 years experience in the auction industry. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy from George Mason University and and Master of Business Administration from the University of Maryland.

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