Past Treasure of the Month – July 2011
The Rosenberg Library displayed a pair of silver sugar tongs as the July Treasure of the Month. The tongs are shrouded in a mystery which involves the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence (a document supposedly published over a year before the United States Declaration of Independence), and were passed down through the Lockhart family. Personal friends of General Sam Houston, the prestigious family played an important role in Galveston’s history. John W. Lockhart (1871 – 1971) served as justice of the county and a local judge in Galveston.
Sugar tongs, an essential part of the traditional English tea service, are used for lifting sugar pieces into tea cups. First introduced in the 17th century, sugar tongs evolved from sugar nips and reflected a change in traditional silver table-ware which stemmed from the British Empire’s rapid economic growth. Silver during the 17th century, whether cast or plated, was formed into intricate and elaborate designs to decorate the dinner table. Tongs formed from a single piece, like the pair on display, represent some of the earliest versions and were often engraved, a practice that lasted until the early 1800s. As the eighteenth century came to a close, flatware design was simplified, and sugar tongs became less ornate. Sugar tongs helped spark new variations and uses for tongs which today include salads, sandwiches, ice cubes, and even sardines and asparagus.
Passed down to John Lockhart (1895 – 1971) from his aunt, Mary Elizabeth Lockhart Landes, the great-granddaughter of Mary Alexander Wallis, the Lockhart sugar tongs have an engraving which reads:
M.A. Alexander, 1776 — daughter of John McKnitt Alexander, who signed the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence and was Secretary of the Mecklenburg Convention of North Carolina, May 1775.
The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence is believed by some to be the first declaration of independence made in the Thirteen Colonies. Signed May 20, 1775 by delegates in Charlotte, it declared independence from Britain after the shocking news of the battle at Lexington.
The authenticity of the document has been disputed for over two centuries. The original, if there was one, was lost until the document was republished in 1819 from notes of John McKnitt Alexander (1733 – 1817). No evidence of its publishing exists from 1775, and politicians in 1819 had no former recollection of its existence. Many historians believe that the Mecklenburg Declaration (from Mecklenburg County in North Carolina) was a recreation of the Mecklenburg Resolves, a set of radical resolutions passed late May 31, 1775 and published in area-wide newspapers that fell short of declaring independence. Many arguments exist for and against the document’s authenticity, but for the state of North Carolina the declaration is a source of pride. Both their seal and state flag bear the date of the declaration, and May 20 was for many years an official state holiday.
Whether you believe the document exists or not, the Lockhart sugar tongs add an interesting twist to the Mecklenburg Declaration mystery. The maker’s mark on the sugar tongs is from an A. DuBois, or Abraham DuBois of Philadelphia (1751 – 1807). Mr. DuBois was a silversmith active from the mid to late 1700s who also traded coffee and indigo through the West Indies. His tongs are of a simple design with bright cut engraving. The family history, engraving, and single bow shape of the tongs suggest the tongs are from the mid-1770s (ca. 1776). If engraved in 1776, these tongs may be one of the only authentic mentions of the Mecklenburg Declarations. However, if the engraving was done after the Declaration’s reprinting and Mary Alexander’s death (1769 – 1816), the tongs serve as an iconic symbol of a local family’s past.
Whether they were truly engraved during the heyday of brightcut engraving in the late 18th century will likely remain a mystery. However, the Lockhart sugar tongs are a fine example of changing Georgian silverware and a wonderful reminder of our nation’s history.