COLLECTING OLD COPPER KETTLES
Few things more readily evoke the cosy comforts of the cottage kitchen than the image of a burnished copper kettle singing and bubbling on a hob or range.
When tea came to Britain in the second half of the 17th century, it was a luxury only the rich could afford. The price steadily declined throughout the 18th century and took a sharp dip in the 19th century when the removal of importing monopolies opened up trade with the Orient. By the time Victoria was firmly seated on her throne, tea was served above and below stairs.
From the first, kettles were an indispensable item of tea-making equipment. Originally, the word kettle was used for any flat-bottomed, lidded pan used for cooking, as opposed to the round bottomed cauldron. Kettles as we know them today evolved alongside tea drinking.
Before tea became the national drink, water had always been heated in large iron cauldrons suspended over an open fire. Since nobody could be bothered to hang about while a cauldron came to the boil when they fancied a cup of tea, special water kettles were developed. They had spouts for pouring and to let out steam so they didn't boil over.
Since tea was originally only for the wealthy, so were the first kettles, which were usually made of silver. As 18-th-century tea drinking was a fashionable social habit, kettles weren't confined to the kitchen, and usually came complete with stands and heaters so they could be used in the drawing room.
While the lower classes were eventually able to afford tea, their funds never stretched to silver. Copper was used instead, because it was cheap, bright and an excellent conductor of heat. Copper kettles were flat-bottomed to stand on the newly developed hob grate or range. Their shape was subject to experimentation.
Wide, low kettles were tried at the end of the 18th century. As much more metal was in contact with the heat, they boiled quickly, but they were unwieldy and difficult to pour. Semi-circular half-kettles were put on a trivet with their flat side snuggling close to the grate, but their sharp angles made them difficult to air. Neither type caught on.
What we think of today as the traditional kettle shape, with its rounded shoulders, cylindrical or pot-bellied body and spout shaped like the neck of an advancing angry goose, proved hard to beat.
Early copper kettles had all-metal handles, since some people still hung them over a fire to boil. Sometimes the handles were hinged. Later ones had handles with grips of wood or bone to protect the user's hands from burning.
KITCHEN COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Copper kettles turn up in all sorts of places. Antique shops, fairs and markets may yield items of interest, while dealers in kitchenalia and auctions of kitchen equipment are also likely sources. As they are decorative as well as useful, and add a certain something to both country cottages and olde worlde tea shops, they have always been sought after.
This means, unfortunately, that they have been widely reproduced for some time. Your best defence against buying a reproduction at the price of an 18th or 19th century kettle is to buy from a reputable dealer. If this is not possible, check for signs of age. Early kettles were made of thick sheet copper hammered out by hand. Before about 1850, most seams were folded over and hammered together; after this date, they were usually soldered.
Look at the riveting. Old rivets look their age, and you should be wary of sharp new work.
The lovely warm patina that comes with age adds value and isn't easily faked; ideally, copper kettles should glow quietly, not shine with metal polish. That said, discoloured or badly soiled kettles should have their poor condition reflected in a much lower price.
The same kind of principle applies to damage. Pitting or the odd slight dent need not ruin the appearance of a kettle - indeed, it may add to its charm - but any serious dents should be taken into account by the price. Splits, of course, are a very serious matter you can hardly boil water in a holed kettle. Try to persuade the seller to fill the kettle before you buy, so you can see it's watertight.
Copper kettles were built to last, and one that was splitting at the seam wouldn't have been discarded, but would have been laid aside for the travelling tinker to repair. Old repairs like this, especially if carefully done, will reduce the price of a kettle but may also add to its appeal, especially if you're intending to use it only for decorative purposes. You must use your judgement in cases like this.
Be sure to check wooden or bone handles for signs of splitting or other serious damage; they can be difficult to replace. Finally, make sure that the kettle and the lid do, in fact, belong together. They should have roughly the same patina and appearance, and fit neatly together - not too tight, nor too loose.
Silver tea kettles were elegant objects; silver is more easily shaped than copper; and being more expensive is always more elaborately decorated. They were rarely used anywhere near the hearth for fear of tarnishing the metal. Instead, they came complete with a stand containing a well that was filled with spirit, chosen because it burns hot and clean. A retractable wick provides a small flame, but silver conducts heat so well it was sufficient to boil the water relatively quickly.