Antique Chinese Paktong tea canister (cannister) with two original Paktong closures that include an inner inset lid and an outer punch decorated covering cap (see all 9 Photos). This nickel alloy canister dates from the c1750 to c1810 period given its design, size, wall thicknesses and detailed hammer punched decoration, hence the circa late 1700s mid-date. The punch chased decoration was created using four different tipped steel punches and a hammer (Photo 1). Various punch-chased methods were used by European and colonial America craftsmen to decorate sterling silver, pewter, copper and brass objects in the mid 1600s on through to the early 1800s. Please review all Photos since this canister has some dents and damage from a long, hard life well lived (e.g., Photos 6 to 9). However, the punch-decorated areas have no damage, dents or major scratches and display well as illustrated in Photos 1, 2, 3 and 4.
The top panel on this canister along with its outer cap are decorated with sacred Chinese motifs and elements (Photos 1, 2, 3). The designs include traditional Chinese themes such as a flowering Prunus branch on the top of the exterior slide cap (Photo 3), whereas there is a Nankin-style band punched into the side of the outer slide cap that displays stylized Lotus flowers evenly spaced three times around the circumference of the cap (Photo 5). The flat top of the canister surrounding its broad mouth has an intricate and detailed punch-chased design that includes stylized sacred fungus scrolls and scrolling vines set among an intricate ground of tiny punched circles (Photos 1, 2 and 4). Set in from each corner on the top is a stylized Lotus flower (Photo 1). A wavy inner border surrounds the bottom of the mouth and where the slide cap sits when it is in place covering the mouth (Photos 1, 2).
It is important to recognize that the punched decoration is chased and not engraved, and was created with a hammer and a steel punch and not by cutting into the metal with a graver to remove thin slivers of the alloy. Consequently, no thin slivers of metal were removed from the surface to create the decoration. Instead, the indentations were hammered into the metal laboriously by precisely positioning each punch before gently tapping it with a hammer to produce the fine details seen up close in Photo 1. Four different punch bits were used to compose the decoration and included (1) a straight bladed punch bit, (2) an hollowed out round bit that produced an open circle, (3) a small solid round bit that created a small circular depression or dot, and (4) a narrow but sharp linear bit that when set at an angle produced a narrow triangular indentation similar to the indentations created by wrigglework punches and gravers on pewter.
The hand punched decoration on the canister listed here mirrors some of the traditional Chinese blue and white porcelain motifs from the 1700s, however the skill and time required to decorate just the top of this canister ventured well beyond the effort need to paint blue and white porcelain. For example, just the small portion of the top of the canister displayed in Photo 1 required precisely placing an estimated 600 individual punch marks to produce (see Photo 1). The tiny hollow circles set end to end and used to produce the fine stipple-like ground between floral elements require some 900 punch placements per square inch to apply. Consequently, there are more than 3,000 estimated individual hammered punch positions placed with precision to render the decoration on the top panel of this canister (Photos 2 and 4).
It is also essential to mention that all the time consuming punch work is restricted to the top of the vessel because this canister itself was placed inside a larger chest, box or decorative tea caddy that might have held more than one tea canister. Two and four canister tea chests and tea caddies were available in the 1700s and 1800s as evident among the antique examples still found today. Whether this tea canister had another mate or three more is no longer known having been lost to time and posterity more than a century ago. Either way, each tea canister functioned primarily as a metal liner to store tea leaves and retard moisture by keeping its contents dry and preventing mold. The second outer vessel might be a elegantly shaped tea caddy made of lacquerware, carved wood, silver, etc., or a decorative tea chest or plain wooden shipping box. And as noted, such caddies, chests and boxes might hold two, four or more canisters to allow a choice of tea flavors or brands such as Hyson, Souchong, Bohea, Green, Congo, Pekoe, Gunpowder, etc. (Jean McClure Mudge 1986:153, etc.).
The two lids used to seal the contents of this tea canister were designed to help keep its contents dry even if this canister was not placed in a larger caddy, chest or box. The two lids are shown in Photos 4 and 5 and consisted of an interior Paktong inset lid with a small wooden knob (Photos 4 and 5), and an outer slip cap that served as an exterior cover (Photos 2, 3 and 5). Neither closure is threaded and so this canister was likely originally sealed with foil, wax and/or a glued paper label after it was filled with tea leaves and then shipped to a merchant, retailer or sales warehouse.
The small knob or finial on the inner lid is composed of dense red colored wood, possibly rosewood. The tiny knob was turned on a lathe leaving behind a even smaller central bump or protrusion on its top and a couple of tell-tale circular striations (Photo 5). It is firmly attached to the inner lid possibly with a small metal pin riveted hidden from view but extending from the lid beneath it. There is just a small scar on the underside of the lid where a drop of solder apparently conceals what secures the knob to the lid
Applying hammer punched decoration to metal extends back several thousand years among metal working cultures and can be found on artifacts in colonial North America for more than 400 years ago (see a hammer punched brass escutcheon from a draw handle with documented provenance extending back to William Penn in Donald Fennimore’s book titled ‘Metalwork in Early America: Copper and its Alloys from the Winterthur Collections’ published by the Winterthur Museum in 1996: see pages 426-27). Other examples from the 1720 to the 1780 period include punch chased copper and brass furniture escutcheons, bed warmers, boxes, candlesticks, etc. (ibid. see pages 193, 428 to 432 for punch-chased examples from 1680 to 1780). Some of the punches used to decorate those items are similar to the punches used to decorate the Paktong canister offered here.
Paktong was perfected by the Chinese empire about 2,000 years ago and consist of an alloy of nickel, copper and zinc. Europeans were not able to isolate nickel in commercial quantities until after 1824 and therefore relied on the importation of finished Paktong objects from China before that date (Fennimore 1996:202). Chinese Paktong was not traded with Western Europe and Great Britain until the 17th century. It was a suitable and effective substitute for silver and could be polished, held a shine, and tarnished much more slowly than sterling. Importation from China subsequently dropped as Paktong lost favor in the West after similar alloys were developed under labels such as German silver and that material gained popularity among electroplate manufacturers by 1850. German silver was an alloy that contained no silver whatsoever and owes its color and durability to nickel alloyed again with several ancillary metals similar to Paktong. And as always, satisfaction guaranteed.
SIZE & CONDITION: This metal canister stands 3 13/16 inches tall and measures 4 3/8 inches wide and 3 1/4 inches deep. It weighs just over 1 lb empty (1 lb 2 ounces) and sits flat and steady (does not rock) on its base despite a couple dents and has applied green felt tabs (see Photo 8; final shipping weight is estimated at about 2 to 2.5 lbs). Its mouth opening has a diameter of about 2 inches. This canister is in used condition with various dents as shown in the Photos and just one small break or split along one edge that is about 1/4 inch long. The split is shown in Photo 8 with a red pen pointing to it. The canister comes with its original two covers and the punch-chased decoration has no damage, dents or major scratches as the Photos help illustrate. Satisfaction is guaranteed and if the buyer is not completely satisfied, then she/he may return this canister for a refund (see our complete return policy for all details as stated below).
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