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Pass the Cake Basket

The Piazza was soon transform’d into a bower … the Pianno was placed at one end of the large piazza and the sopha at the other, and a table on which the big bowl (which is used only on grand occasions) the birth day cake crown’d with lilies and roses and fruit was placed, and we drank punch, and eat cake, till they all felt in a good humour for dancing.[1]Margaret Bayard Smith, 1811.

Today, birthday celebrations around the world include a coveted treat: cake. We think of a birthday cake as a round, layered baked good that requires slicing and dishing out to guests. However, during Montpelier’s interpretative period of the early 1800s, cakes were small, individual sweetbreads, what we think of today as simple teacakes. [2] Such small cakes weren’t synonymous with birthdays but, as was the case in the party Margaret Bayard Smith attended in 1811, a cake could be made especially for someone’s birthday.

Silver cake baskets, like this one on display in the Dining Room at Montpelier, were elegant and functional containers used for bread, cakes or fruits. This early 19th-century basket features a large, swinging handle that allowed the container to easily be passed around the table, without the necessity of a servant’s assistance. The curved lip of the basket offered guests an enticing view of the sweet treats as the basket was handed around. The heavy, oblong base of the basket was a popular style in the late 18th and early 19th century.[3]

Silversmith Robert Garrard I (1758-1818) of London made this cake basket, generously on loan to The Montpelier Foundation by Martha Madison Campbell, in 1803. His son, Robert Garrard II, would lead the family’s company, R.J. & S. Garrard, to success as royally appointed Goldsmiths and Jewellers to the King in 1830 and Crown Jewellers in 1843.[4] A series of marks can be found on the side of the basket’s foot;  RG, which is Garrard’s maker’s mark; the Lion Passant, indicating the sterling standard; the Leopard with Crown, assay mark for the City of London; the date mark H, indicating 1803; and the duty mark.[5]

This cake basket features an M monogram encircled by a Greek key border in the center of the bowl. By studying objects with well-documented Madison provenance, specialists can compare the monograms to confirm the authenticity of ownership. The M on this cake basket strongly resembles the M on a French porcelain tea and coffee service by maker Etienne Blancheron, owned by the Madisons, pictured above.[6]  However, a friend of the Madisons, James Monroe, had a Garrard silver coffee pot, with the same M as this cake basket. This opens up a number of questions. Did Garrard use a standard M design for his silver pieces? Was this cake basket part of a silver service commissioned by James Monroe and ultimately given to his friends, the Madisons? There is documentary evidence that Monroe did sell some of his silver to Madison.

Although there is no direct evidence that this basket was purchased by James and Dolley Madison, the object’s provenance is very strong and was even on loan to the White House in the 1990s. The M monogram, the creation date, and the established extended family connection make this silver cake basket an appropriate addition to the dessert setting on view in the Dining Room at Montpelier, an addition we are grateful to have from the generosity of Martha Madison Campbell.[7]

[1] Gaillard Hunt (editor) and Margaret Bayard Smith, The First Forty Years of Washington Society: Portrayed by the Family Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), MRD-S 121,p. 88.

[2] Clark, Melissa. “Endangered: The Beloved American Layer Cake.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Mar. 1999,

[3] “Miscellaneous Pieces; Bread, Cake, and Sweetmeat Baskets. .” The Book of Old Silver, by Seymour B. Wyler, Crown, 1937, pp. 77–78.

[4] “Robert Garrard and Robert Garrard and Brothers, Cat. Nos. 67-77.” The Jerome and Rita Gans Collection of English Silver on Loan to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, by Joseph R. Bliss, ARN Publishing Co., 1992, p. 191.

[5] “Memo to the Provenance Committee.” February 7, 2011. Prepared by: Lily Rubinstein, Object Research Assistant. MRD-O 692.

[6] Grant Quertermous, “A James Madison Monogram or Seal,” February 1, 2010, Montpelier Foundation, Orange, Orange County, Virginia. MRD- S39821

[7] “Memo to the Provenance Committee.”