about 1725–30
John Burt (American, 1692/93–1745/46)

Object Place: Boston, Massachusetts


Overall: 20 x 10.5 cm, 0.75 kg (7 7/8 x 4 1/8 in., 1.65 lb.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique


Not On View




Silver hollowware

The tankard has straight tapering sides, with an applied molding at base band, on body, and at lip. Incised lines appear below the lip. The stepped domed cover has a narrow flange and a cast bell-shaped finial. A four-ridged scroll thumbpiece is above a five-part hinge plate; molded drop appears below. The seamed scroll handle has a rounded drop at upper joining; disk at lower end with grotesque mask terminus; and oval air vent below. At a later date, a large spout with a molded lip was applied on side opposite handle, obliterating all but a faint remnant of a coat of arms; large, evenly spaced holes were drilled into the body to accommodate the spout. The difference between the current and scratch weight is due to the addition of this spout.
Dent in handle below engraving.

This classic Boston tankard, with its tapering walls, low midband, domed lid, and grotesque terminal, is nearly identical to the previous Burt example (cat. no. 16) but is notable for the spout that it received sometime in the nineteenth century. The transformation of colonial-era tankards into pitchers has been commonly attributed to the influence of the temperance movement beginning in the mid-1820s. The first documented “spouting” of a tankard occurred as early as 1816, however, suggesting that a trend to adapt tankards to new uses was already under way by this date.
The tankard’s traditional use as a drinking form was likely dealt a deathblow by the temperance movement, but its morphology may have more to do with changing attitudes toward health, etiquette, and taste. Due to their size, most tankards were considered communal vessels to be shared among friends, family, and church. The cup as a symbol of fellowship, for instance, was a medieval convention born of necessity in an era with few individual drinking cups. As cheap imports and new American products made glass and ceramic drinking cups affordable to many Americans, private use or ownership of such vessels became a reality for those who previously made do with inexpensive treen or horn. An increasing awareness of good hygiene also led to the demise of shared vessels. Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, it was understood that contagious diseases could be passed from one person to another. Personal etiquette gradually changed to reflect this concern, as books on manners of the period urged their readers to wipe their mouths before sharing in drink. Yet Americans in the late eighteenth century still retained the tradition of communal vessels. An American traveller in France decried the practices of his countrymen, which risked the contraction of disease, and noted that in France, “every man has his own glass, and risks no one’s lips but his own.”
The Museum of Fine Arts has some spouted tankards in
the permanent collection, along with others that were “de-spouted” in the twentieth century by owners who wished to return the vessels to their original form. The residual engraving on the body opposite the handle suggests that this tankard may have sacrificed a coat of arms to the new spout.
As with pewter, untold numbers of silver hollowware and flatware pieces were regularly melted down and remade into newly fashionable works during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The spout was a frugal and efficient method of retaining an old-fashioned yet pleasant form while adapting it to new uses. For Americans who continued to purchase outmoded tankards and porringers until the end of the eighteenth century, improvisation on an old form was one manner of bridging cultural gaps, keeping the familiar at hand while bringing in the new.

This text has been adapted from “Silver of the Americas, 1600-2000,” edited by Jeannine Falino and Gerald W.R. Ward, published in 2008 by the MFA. Complete references can be found in that publication.


Entwined monograms "WN / and / AB" engraved in later script on handle. Scratch weight of "24" [ounces] inscribed on bottom to left of center point. The same scratch weight appears faintly above the mark and near edge of base. Effaced coat of arms appears faintly around spout.


Marked within an ellipse "JOHN BURT" on bottom of vessel above center point.


It is possible that the original owner of the tankard was the merchant Nicholas Boylston (1716-1771). Having no wife or children, he adopted his nephew Ward Nicholas Hallowell (1747-1828) who was the son of his sister Mary, whose loyalist husband Captain Benjamin Hallowell fled to Halifax and later England in 1776. [1] The inscription "WNB" on the handle establishes the first documented ownership to Ward Nicholas Boylston, who took his adopted uncle's surname. The second set of initials may refer to Ann Molineux , whom Ward Nicholas Boylston apparently abandoned during the revolutionary war due to his own loyalist leanings, but it is more likely that the initials refer to his second wife, Alicia Darrow (b. England). [2] The tankard descended to John Lane Boylston (1789-1847) the first son of Ward Nicholas and Alicia (Darrow) Boylston, who married Sarah/Sally Brooks (b. 1793); to their son Thomas Boylston (b. 1819) and his wife Caroline A. Fowle; to their son, Thomas Boylston, Jr. (1848-1870), who married Florence Randall (b. about 1751); to their son, Ward Nicholas Boylston (1871-1924) and his first wife, Nellie Frances Eayrs (1874-1895); to their son, Ward Nicholas Boylston, Jr. (1896-1966), thence to the donor; his wife Esther (Moore) Boylston (d. 1974).[3]

[1] Thomas B. Wyman, Jr., "Pedigree of the Family of Boylston," NEHGR 7 (1853) 145-50; NEHGR 15 (1861): 364; Park, Gilbert Stuart, I:172-74, cat. 106-08; Mary Caroline Crawford, Famous Families of Massachusetts (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1930), p. 9-12; Stark, Loyalists of Massachusetts, pp. 281-83; Boston Newspapers 1:35.

[2] MFA paintings catalogue [old one] p. 129, cat. 475, fig. 206. painting by???

[3] Massachusetts Vital Records, Births, Vol 35, p. 66; Vol. 459, p. 551; Massachusetts Vital Records, Marriages, Vol 227, p. 341; 227, p. 341; Massachusetts Vital Records, Deaths 1847-1848 Vol 33, p. 205. Princeton, Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850, (CITY, PUB. DATE___________) p. 81, 151; Roxbury, Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850 (CITY, PUB. DATE___________) 1:36; 470-71; Obituary, Boston Herald, August 17, 1966;
Obituary, [Portland] Maine Press Herald, p. 2;

Credit Line

Bequest of Esther M. Boylston