SAMOVARS: Symbols of the Rus
Samovars are a necessary feature of the Russian mode of life & consequently a part of Russian applied art. It is difficult to say when the first samovar was made, but they became widely spread throughout the country with the introduction of tea and coffee. Russians of all walks of life had, have & still use samovars today. In bygone times samovars were fired with either, coal, charcoal, or wood. Today many are electrical appliances just like a toaster, a microwave oven or a coffee-maker. There are even butane fired samovars that are used for picnics & travel.
The sole purpose of a samovar was to heat water toÂ almost the boiling point & thenÂ maintain it there. Small pots of tea were made and kept on top of the samovar. The tea was made extremely concentrated & strong. Thus the hot water was used to dilute it to the individual tastes of the drinkers.
Historically we have archaeological evidence that shows a samovar-like appliance made of fired clay that was sued in ancient northern China. The archtypical Mongol "firepot" is akin to this device as well. They were eventually made of various metals such as copper, bronze, cast iron &Â now out of stainless steel. Some were very plain & others were very ornate. Many had porcelain or rare exotic wooden attachments & handles. They come in a wide variety of shapes as well as sizes. Some had carved ivory handles. Many were intricately engraved & even inlet with precious metals. Exotic woods & semi-precious stone were used as well to make handles & bases for these wonderful contraptions. Samovars originally were brought to Russia first, by the ancient Silk Road caravan traders but then in greater numbers by Genghis Khan's Mongols of the Golden Horde.
Samovars were produced in many towns of Russia, but most famous was Tula, an old center of metalworking. Russian samovars vary in interior construction & exterior decoration and purpose. They were made of different metals; copper, iron, silver, silver plating on copper, steal, cast iron, and their decoration testifies to different stylistic art trends echoing the general tendencies in the artistic tastes of different periods. Other locations that also were justly famous for producing samovars included Odessa in Ukraine, Minsk in Belorussia, Saratov, Rostov, Tashkent and Samarkand in Uzbekhistan, Kharkiv in Ukraine, and Tbilisi in Georgia.
Samovars have traditionally been the most recognized symbol of Russian hospitality & family comfort as well as a sign of prosperity. Step-by-step a unique ritual of tea drinking emerged & was virtually adopted in every Russian home. In accordance with this ritual a hostess or her elder daughter poured the tea. Some families held 2 samovars. One, plainer, for everyday use, and a much more ornate one, for formal occasions, receptions & festivities.
There were even homes with separate "samovar rooms" whose interior was crowned by the samovar. Many families had several samovars, each with its own specific history & lore. Samovars were a favorite gift for nobility to present to important commoners such as priests, teachers, military leaders, government officials, etc. Very large samovars were often to be found in military offices, train stations, large inns & often in the rectories of churches, abbeys, & monasteries.
Samovars have a varied and somewhat convoluted history. It is thought that the samovar is derived from a Mongolian tea maker-warmer that was, of course, brought with Genghis Khan's invading hordes. Samovars are not solely Russian but are to be found all over Central Asia, China, Korea, Mongolia, Tibet, parts of northern India, & most of the Middle East. You can find modern samovars, antique samovars, & samovars with historical significance side-by-side with each other in many homes all over the former Soviet Union.
Samovars are made up of several components. The main component of the historical samovar was the fire chamber where the coal, charcoal or woof chips were burned to heat the water in the tank. This chamber consisted of fire box where the actual combustion of the fuel took place and a chimney or flue where the heat would rise. This chimney ran up through the middle of the water tank thus providing heat tot he water. The hot air was dispersed through holes or vents at the top of the samovar.
The water tank was just that. a tank that was filled from the top and depending upon the size of the samovar could hold anywhere from a liter of water to several gallons of water. The water was released from the bottom of the tank by a spigot valve.
At the top of the samovar was the water tank lid which usually is flat or has a flat area for a vessel of very strong, highly concentrated tea, chai. Sitting atop the hot water kept this tea warmed. around the this top which also covered the top of the chimney were holes or openings for the smoke from the fuel combustion to escape.
Last but probably most importantly were the handles by which the samovar was picked up, carried and operated. These could & often were plain items but on the more expensive and ornate samovars they could be very elaborate, crafted from precious metals (gold, silver or platinum) or semi-precious stone (malachite, turquoise, jade, etc.)or even prized substances such as ivory and or ebony.
Repairing old samovars has become a hobby that can mean extra money for many Russian, Ukrainian, Georgians, etc. in recent times. There has been a resurgence in samovar popularity both in the countries of the former Russian Empire & former Soviet Union as well outside of Russia in such places as England, Australia, the USA, Canada, Germany, & Italy just to name a few. You can buy hand-painted, screen-printed, plain, fancy, copper, brass, stainless steel, cast iron, aluminum, and combinations thereof ranging in cost from $25 up to $5000 or anywhere in between. Collecting antique samovars has become a true passion with collectors all over the world.
You can now in modern times purchase beautiful yet functional electric samovars. They come plain or hand-painted, enameled, or engraved. TheyÂ are madeÂ in standard sizes such as 1 liter, 2 liter, 5 liter, 10 liter, & large commercial versions of 25 to 100 liter sizes. Commercial samovars also come as gas-fired units the rely upon a source of either butane, propane or natural gas as the combustible for providibg the heat. Owning and using a samovar becomes a way of life for the uninitiated the first time that they use one. There is something very comforting about a warm samovar & a hot glass of tea especially on a cold day or a colder evening. Try it yourself! You will find out why Russians all love their samovars.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Samovar Poem
IVAN IVANYCH SAMOVAR
by Daniil Kharms, 1928
Ivan Ivanych Samovar
Was a pot-bellied samovar,
A three-bucket samovar.
Inside him boiled the water,
Puffed with steam the boiling water,
The furious boiling water,
Poured into the cup through the tap
Through the hole right into the tap
Right into the cup through the tap.
Early in the morning came,
To the samovar came,
Uncle Petya came.
Uncle Petya says,
"Give me some to drink", he says,
"I'll drink some tea", he says.
To the samovar came,
Auntie Katya came,
With a glass she came.
Auntie Katya says,
"I, of course," she says,
"Will also have a drink," she says.
Then grandpa came,
Very old he came,
In shoes grandpa came.
He yawned and says,
"Perhaps I should drink," he says,
"Perhaps some tea," he says.
Then grandma came,
Very old she came,
Even with a cane she came.
And, thinking, she says,
"Well, a drink", she says,
"Well, some tea," she says.
Suddenly, the girl ran up,
To the samovar she ran up,
This granddaughter ran up.
"Pour me," she says,
"A cup of tea," she says,
"For me, make it sweeter," she says.
Then the dog Zhuchka ran up,
With the cat Murka he ran up,
To the samovar he ran up,
To get with milk,
Boiling water with milk,
With boiling milk.
Suddenly Seryozha came,
Unwashed he came,
Later than everyone else he came.
"Give me," he says,
"A cup of tea," he says,
"For me, a big cup," he says.
They tipped and they tipped
And they tipped the samovar,
But out of it came
Only steam, steam, steam.
They tipped the samovar
Like a bookcase, bookcase, bookcase,
But out of it came
Only drop, drop, drop.
Samovar Ivan Ivanych!
On the table Ivan Ivanych!
Golden Ivan Ivanych!
Boiling water he does not give
To those who are late he does not give,
To lazybones he does not give.
Samovars of Russian History
Ivan T. Komonov, in Russian, 1982
Imperial Russia: Samovars & Chai
Lev A. Abramov & Natalya Y. Levin, in Russian, 1992
Copyright Â© 2006-2011 Donald R Houston, PhD. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.