Did Napoleon need a nightlight?

When people shop for porcelain dinnerware, many ping the plates, then hold them up to a strong light source. Fine porcelain china rings when pinged. Since china is translucent, it also glows.

White “chinaware” pots and bowls first reached Europe in the 17th century, where they were used to serve imported treats, tea, coffee and hot chocolate. Enterprising English and Dutch potters, spotting a trend, sought to duplicate china’s strength, fragility, and translucent beauty for themselves. Following frenzied experimentation, German alchemist Johann Bottger discovered the secret of producing hard paste, heat-resistant porcelain – sometimes called white gold. As porcelain factories sprang up across Europe, not only the wealthy, but the working classes collected porcelain vases, figurines, decorative items, and, of course, teapots.

During the 18th century, like now, people often enjoyed sipping warm cups of tea just before retiring for the night. So bedside porcelain teapots were favored wedding gifts. In these days before electrical lighting, they served a dual purpose. Oiled wicks or tiny candles in recesses beneath the pots kept the tea warm. As the flames flickered through pierced vents above them and through the translucent porcelain itself, boudoirs were bathed in diffused glows. So these teapots, called veilleuse-theieres (say vay-ooz, tay-air), also doubled as nightlights.

The earliest veilleuses were actually simple food warmers, similar to today’s chafing dishes, but supporting small bowls. Babies and invalids roused from nighttime slumber were offered warm, comforting spoonfuls of gruel or soup. Later, babes were offered sips of warm herbal potions by the glow of soft, comforting veilleuse-theieres.

Because of their fragile nature and their continual use, few veilleuse-theieres have survived the years. France, Switzerland, and Italy boast small collections, as do two private parties in the United States. But the largest collection by far belongs to a small town in Tennessee.
Dr. Frederick Freed, a medical doctor and New York University professor born in Trenton, Tenn., received his first porcelain veilleuse-theiere as a gift from a grateful patient. Touched by its charm, he sought out others wherever his travels took him. Over the next 40 years, he collected, all told, more than 500 veilleuse-theieres.

Most of Freed’s veilleuse-theieres, which were created between 1750 and 1860, he purchased in France and Germany. Others reflect his frequent trips to places farther still, like Spain, Belgium, Corsica, Italy, Tunisia, and beyond–40  different countries altogether. Each veilleuse-theiere is a rare antique work of art, priceless and irreplaceable. According to experts, the entire Freed Collection is currently worth between $6 and $8 million.

Toward the end of his life, Dr. Freed considered leaving this incredible collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Instead, at his brother’s suggestion, he gifted his home town. Because of that gift, Trenton City Hall, then, is not just a beehive of offices. It is also an art gallery, with Dr. Freed’s beloved treasures on permanent display. Dr. Freed’s veilleuse-theieres have put tiny Trenton on the map.

Many of Freed’s veilleuse-theieres are actually traditional, bulbous teapots atop simple matching pedestals or square bases. Others, richly ornamented, boast swirls of sumptuous bouquets of roses and cornflowers or curliqued leaves and vines, all edged in shimmering gold.
Veilleuse-theieres sometimes mimic their origins. A delicate, skylark green, fluted teapot and pedestal veilleuse, translucent as an oriental lantern, hails from Hong Kong. A brown slated “roof” teapot tops a veilleuse-theieres that, down to its French advertisements, resembles a Parisian kiosk. A white and gold laced Gothic style veilleuse-theiere recalls windows of the great French cathedrals. Other architectural veilleuse-theieres include a towering turret, a quadrangular Normandy house, and a Spanish windmill.

Some of Dr. Freed’s veilleuse-theieres reflect history in the making, like the one that belonged to Louis XVI. His collections also includes four belonging to Napoleon, all marked with regal “Ns,” either depicting his victories or boasting golden eagles, the symbol of his new French empire. A sky blue veilleuse-theiere, adorned with pictures of candy colored hot air balloons, commemorates man’s first free flight. Another honors two noblewomen whose histories were entwined, Diane de Poitiers, mistress of, and Catherine de Medici, wife to Henry II of France.
Animal veilleuse-theieres abound too. A gold encrusted Spanish pig grotesque, its snout poised to pour, displays a scroll depicting scenes of Hades. A Siamese elephant, dashing in candy striped pants and blue waistcoat, pours from his nose. A tasseled Tunisian camel rests en route, while his mistress peeks out from her curtained howdah.

Many of Freed’s veilleuse-theieres are figural, bearing no outward resemblance to teapots at all. Some are pure flights of fancy. A rosy cheeked cupid, draped in blue splendor and cradling a golden pitcher, for example, sits astride a long haired goat. A maiden straddles a fearsome, multi-colored dolphin. A gilded mermaid is awash with thematic frogs’ heads and seashells, while a sea serpent, encircling the teapot above, is both handle and spout.

Other figurals are more realistic. A Turkish turbaned warrior twists his mustache while fingering twin daggers in his cummerbund. An inscrutable, mustachioed Chinese Mandarin proffers a china tea cup on high. A courtesan, enticing in gilded and ruffled petticoats, flutters her fan. All of these, at first glance, are simply exquisite porcelain creations. Yet somewhere within their cunning features, all conceal utilitarian teapots combined with night lights.

These are but a few of the Freed treasures. Imagine hundreds more, displayed in mirrored glass cases from floor to ceiling. Now imagine them all ceremoniously lit. Thus Trenton kicks off its annual Teapot Festival, which marries Old World treasures with old-fashioned home town pleasures.

As the lamps glow, the good times begin to roll. Porcelain lovers and townies alike flock to horse shows, antique car shows, truck and tractor pulls, and sports tournaments. They attend prayer breakfasts, block parties, grand luncheons, musical feasts, and naturally, tea parties. Then they hop things up with a Teapot Trot, followed by the annual Most Beautiful & Most Unusual Teapot Contest. The Trenton Teapot Festival ends with fireworks and a Grand Parade.