Historical Notes: While in London in 1786 Jefferson looked for silver vegetable dishes. He noted a price on the back of an engraved trade card from the silversmith Thomas Whipham, "Silver dishes for vegetables &c about 16£ each including the cover which may serve occasionally for another dish."1 Some serving dishes of the period do have lids that could be inverted for use as an extra shallow serving dish, but Jefferson made no such purchases in England. He waited until his return to Paris, and in early 1787, midway through his five-year stay, he paid over 1300 livres in two installments for "4.Casserolles."2 This acquisition was his largest single purchase of French silver.
The round, flat-bottomed vegetable dishes have two handles and a domed lid with reeded rim and central handle. In contrast to much French silver of the Louis XVI period, they were almost devoid of ornamentation. The handles, in the form of a bead supported by two husks rising from rosette junctures, are their only truly decorative feature. The clean, simple lines and understated ornamentation of these dishes exemplify Jefferson's Neoclassical taste. He would repeatedly express these preferences in future purchases of silver in France and America.
The silver vegetable dishes came to America in 1790 with the rest of Jefferson's household items. Used first at Jefferson's Philadelphia residence, they came to Monticello in 1793 where they continued in service for many years.3 They appear as "4 vegetable dishes with cov[ers]" on Martha Jefferson Randolph's list of silver, circa 1823, and again as "4 vegetable dishes [and] 4 tops. 1 handle & a half lost," on her inventory made about 1833.4 The fact that the vegetable dishes are one of only two specific bequests of silver made in Martha Randolph's will attests to the strength of their association with Jefferson.5 They passed to Mrs. Randolph's eldest son, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who in turn passed them to his youngest daughter, Sarah Nicholas Randolph, who wrote The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson in 1871. He wrote in his will, "To my daughter Sarah I give the four silver vegetable dishes with their plates and covers bequeathed to me by my mother, as a reward for her successful vindication of the Character of my Grandfather in her Domestic life of him."6
In addition to the dishes' substantial size and value, the special regard for the silver vegetable dishes may be in part due to Jefferson's fondness for vegetables. He himself wrote in 1819, "I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, & that, not as an aliment so much as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet."7
1. Trade card of Thomas Whipham, c. 1786, Thomas Jefferson Foundation collection.
2. Thomas Jefferson, January 16 and 17, 1787, in MB, 1:651. Jefferson and his family used the terms casserole and vegetable dish interchangeably. The word casserole comes from a French word for a cooking pan in which food was subsequently served.
4. Martha Jefferson Randolph, housewife list, c. 1823, and silver inventory, c. 1833, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.
5. Martha Jefferson Randolph, will, written in Washington, D.C. by an unidentified hand, April 18, 1834, Edgehill-Randolph Papers, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library.
6. Thomas Jefferson Randolph, will, written January 24, 1873 and probated December 6, 1875, Albemarle County Will Book, 29:133. By 1873 when Randolph's will was written, the four silver plates were being used as under-plates for the vegetable dishes, even though they are not intended for that purpose originally.
7. Jefferson to Vine Utley, Monticello, March 21, 1819, in L&B, 15:187. Transcription available at Founders Online.