Object of the Month

Object of the Month October 2015

Samovar Nikolay Ivanovich BatashevBrass, Tula, Russia, ca. 1870Gift of the estates of Lily Arkowitz, Esther Arkowitz, and Elinor Sherman

As the fall chill sets in this month, you can warm up next to this historic samovar, which was one of the many samovars used by Russian-Jewish families to make tea. Nicholay Ivanovich Batashev manufactured this particular samovar in Tula, Russia, circa 1870. The artifact is emblematic of the American Jewish immigrant experience and what was brought from the Old World to the New; this samovar was a valued possession chosen for the voyage from Russia to America.
Carol Sherman-Jones and her family donated the samovar to the museum, and she has fond memories of the artifact from her childhood. She would play with the samovar in her tea parties, though it was primarily an item on display in her home. In Russia, it would have been used for making tea or warming other liquids, such as soup. Hot coals and water would be placed inside the samovar, with a teapot resting on top, allowing the hot water to boil and brew the tea. A small portion of tea from the teapot and hot water from the samovar’s spout would be poured into a glass together to enjoy. A depiction of a samovar in The Merchant's Wife, a painting by Boris Kustodiev (1918), demonstrates the centrality in Russian life of this functional and beautiful household object.

In addition to its role in Russian life, the samovar also evokes family stories about immigrant life in early twentieth century America. As Carol Sherman-Jones stated in an oral history about the samovar, “I wish it could talk; if it could talk it would certainly tell us a lot of stories.” Sherman-Jones goes on to describe her family’s experience in New York and New Jersey as new immigrants to the United States. In New Jersey, the family ran a saloon and her grandmother saw firsthand the importance of legal representation for the underserved. As a result, her grandmother eventually became a lawyer and women’s rights activist, defying expectations for women during the time period by practicing law and taking a stand for social issues.
You can learn more about this fascinating family history – perhaps while enjoying a cup of tea – by watching the oral history conducted with Sherman-Jones (see video below). Even if the samovar cannot speak, its presence tells us a great deal about Russian-Jewish immigration and twentieth century American Jewish life.
Barry, Mary J. “The Samovar: Its History and Use.” Revised edition. Jenner, CA: Fort Ross Conservancy, 1986. www.fortross.org/lib/57/the-samovar-history-and-use.pdf
Carol Sherman-Jones Oral History Interview. July 28, 2015. Skirball Museum at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Cincinnati, Ohio.