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Main | Archive | Issue 1/2006

A Story About Glass Coasters
Column: Things Russian

In the beginning was the glass, a vessel for cold beverages that can be regarded as the common ancestor of todays glasses cut and thick-walled, smooth and lavishly adorned. The glass came into being very long ago, and one cannot say with any degree of certainty where exactly it appeared. Beginning with the Middle Ages, the glass name has firmly established itself designating cylinder or coneshaped glass flasks. The technological complexity of manufacture often equated glass flasks with similar goods made out of precious metals.

As an accessory of the tea table, the glass began spreading throughout Russia in the second quarter of the 19th century. Among married couples, close relatives and friends it was common usage to present an intricately decorated tea-drinking glass pair comprising a glass stakan in Russian and a saucer. In the everyday life, most of all cups with saucers were used, and this was explained just by convenience. Russian 19th-century painters depicting family tea parties, however, demonstrated us a very interesting detail: at the same table, women had tea from cups, whereas men often preferred glasses. Very soon, the thin-walled vessel turned into a traditional attribute of mens daily life. Glasses were used for having tea at work, during journeys and at leisure in mens companies. The thin glass got very hot, though, and it was hard to hold it in the hands. And there came a wonderful invention: a metal glass coaster, podstakannik in Russian.

Apart from fulfilling its purely utilitarian functions, the coaster, especially one made of silver, began to play the role of an object that made the mans daily life more attractive. In this respect it can be compared to the cigarette-case, which likewise became widespread since the 19th century. Both are related to each other by the use of the same materials during the manufacture (precious and nonprecious metals), working techniques (casting, stamping, filigree), stylistic features of ornamentation and a very significant point the itemsdemocratic nature: the coaster, just like the cigarette-case, could be seen in the hands of an aristocrat, official, serviceman, merchant, boss or his subordinate, professor and student. A silver coaster and a cigarettecase alike belonged to the most sought-after gifts. Colleagues gave them as presents to their fellow workers, patients handed them over to doctors, students presented them to teachers, relatives got them as keepsakes during family feasts; such gifts were also made to close friends or beloved men.

We can even assume that the podstakannik was invented by Russians. This is proven not only by the tradition of endless Russian tea parties, which are not regulated by the fixed time or rituals, but also by the fact that the glass coaster as a subject of the tea table laying pattern very rarely occurs worldwide in special collections or reference sources. As for Russia, all is different. You can see the great-grandfathers coaster in many families despite all ups and downs of the Russian history of the past century marked by interminable displacements of popular ma s s e s along vast expanses as a result of wars, forced resettlements and development of new regions. The cherished tea glass coaster remained a symbol of the sweet home, stability of daily life, and inviolability of the kinship relations.

Coasters are widely represented in Russian museum collections. Take, for instance, the collections of the Precious Metals Section of the State History Museum;the collections in question count nearly 30, 000 items;as to the number of the collections themselves, there are over a hundred of them. They are of considerable interest from the viewpoint of the development of the 19th-20th-century Russian jewelry art. The shape and d cor of the tea glass coasters were a function of the style, fashion evolution, and improvement of techniques applied in creating silvers and goldsmiths masterworks.

Coasters that were often custommade and reflected individual tastes can tell a lot on the structure of Russian society and mentality of its different strata. Similar to Russian medieval wine glasses and goblets, the coasters often carried traditional inscription with wishes. The most widely spread of them were made by using carving or stamping techniques and reading Heres to your health!were located in the upper part. More often than not podstakanniks were ornamented with inscriptions bearing the owners name or artful monograms made up of two or three letters.

As far as the podstakannik shapes were concerned, they were extremely multifarious. In the mid-19th century, the decoration of the body and handle was dominated by neo-Rococo and neo-Classicism themes. From the 1870s onward, in conformity with the Russian style aesthetics, the holders were styled in the shape of a peasants hut, a high wooden fence, a keg, cask, or a wicker birch-bark basket. According to the shape, the body of the podstakanniks was adorned with cast plates, carved flower garlands, and engravings representing rural or urban romantic landscapes. Carved flocks of swallows were flying, and touching bunches of lilies of the valley and violets were scattered on the smooth surface. Stamped and, more often, pressed high-relief coasters dating back to the late 19th early 20th century showed to the world strings of rushing troikas and scenes of successful hunting. Total enthusiasm for Richard Wagners music and his famous opera Lohengrin with dazzling Leonid Sobinov, the publics favorite, was reflected in the styling of the glass holders in the form of the swans body with raised and expressively bent wings.

Equally in much demand were also relief images of ancient Russian warriors, powerful outposts, as well as tsarevnas with exuberant crown kokoshniks. As was the case of the entire Russian jewelry art at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, the d cor of the podstakanniks was a striking reflection of epic, fairy tale, and historical themes. The early 20th century was characterized by a high-relief representation of a horse head on a long curved neck surrounded by horses collars, hoofs, riding crops, hunters horns, and other armamentarium of hunting and races.

Only the best Russian firms manufactured this type of jewelry. In 1894, for instance, the Karl Faberg company made a coaster whose body had the shape of two intertwined snakes. A unique specimen of the work performed by Heinrich Wigstr m, one of the outstanding craftsmen of the Faberg company, astounds by its splendor: it was a massive, silver, gilded coaster with a handle in the shape of a fantastic baluster adorned with multicolored enamel in a filigree framing;the coaster was meant for an especially large glass.

Glass coasters as necessary and beautiful things have survived until today. Nielloed, carved, stamped compositions inspired by Russian fairly tales, heroic icebreakers and planes were characteristic of the 1930s-1970s. Open-worked, filigree silver and German silver podstakanniks of finest craftsmanship are manufactured by the masters of the Krasnoselskaya Jewelry Factory near Kostroma. Refine coasters covered with enamel of striking and reserved tints are currently made by the St. Petersburg-based Russian Semi-Precious Stones Association. The coasters produced by the Northern Niello Factory, one of the oldest enterprises, and by the Kubachi Art Combined Works in Dagestan delight by the nobleness and quaintness of the ornamentation.

On the occasion of popular festivities and family feasts, a magnificent podstakannik with a memorable inscription will be the best present to a colleague, a friend or a loved one.

Tatyana SIZOVA,
Head, Precious Metals Section
of the State History Museum,
PhD (History)
Photos by the State History
Museum and Sergey Shcherbakov


-, 2006