The Magnificent Soup Tureen

From large, communal bowls, to ornate, aristocratic works of art, to whimsical, inexpensive tableware, the tureen has had an interesting development over many centuries..

A broad, deep, usually oval vessel, featuring large looped handles, the tureen is most often associated with serving soup, but is also used for stews, and other dishes. Materials used to create tureens include the most common earthenware and porcelain, but also include silver, pewter (believed to the the material of the original tureens) and melamine, and every serverware material in between. Early tureens also were footed and featured ornate, rococo-style decoration.
Herend Royal Garden Soup Tureen with Butterfly Knob

The earliest soup-servers were, in the days of yore when all the dishes for a meal were tabled at the onset of the meal, and for all the people to grab-at at once, communal bowls. The prevailing belief is that during the reign of France's Louis XIV, and the onset of separate courses served one-at-a-time, the ornate, covered soup "tureen" came to be, so ornate and awe-inspiring, as the first course to se served, brought to the table almost as part of a regal ceremony..

For several centuries, the tureen, likely named for French military hero Marshal Turenne*, but also referred to as a pot à oille, was the centerpiece, in all its ornate glory, of the formal table. Tureens were popular in not only the "original" oval shape, but in also in round or rectangular shapes, as well as in the form of wild animals, in particular the head of a lion. By the eighteenth century, the animal motif had gained more popularity, and tureens in the shape of rabbits were prized possessions, and tureens in the shape of cabbages and the like were equally popular. .

Small, individual tureens, usually served on a platter, and called a écuelle, which is now defined as a “two-handled soup or porridge bowl”, were also frequently seen by the eighteenth century.
Villeroy & Boch French Garden Fleurence Tureen

Today, affordable tureens, in classic designs, reminiscent of the days of Louis XIV, and also versions resembling pumpkins, lion's heads, and the like, remain popular, and add both a sense of class and whimsey, to the dinner table.

Unfortunately, few of the large, ornate silver tureens of 17th century France still exist, as in his later years, Louis XIV had them melted down for the silver, needed to pay for the Franco-Spanish War and other such military efforts. However, back in the 1960s, John T. Dorrance Jr., chairman of the Campbell Soup Company and W. B. Murphy, the company president, decided that the Soup Tureen was a valuable piece of history and a collector’s item, and for several years committed considerable resources to scouring the world looking for tureens worthy of being placed on exhibit, and the “Campbell Collection” of soup tureens was born. Today, the collection is on permanent exhibit at the Winterthur Museum in Winterthur, Deleware.

*This theory is disputed, however. Critics of this etiology of the term ridicule Marshal Turenne, with a story that the tureen was named after him due to his having once consumed soup out of his helmet. Such critics believe the name came from a misspelling of the term “terrine” used for an earthenware dish or vessel.

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Revised and updated October, 2015
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