Fanciful, but definitely functional, veilleuses-théières, or nightlight teapots, began to appear in France in the early 1800s. The name is derived from the French word veiller, which means to keep a night vigil. The purpose of the veilleuses was to heat nourishment for invalids in sickrooms and hospitals and to provide a soft, consoling light in the days before the invention of electricity.
A veilleuse consisted of a cylindrical base that contained either a candle or vegetable or nut oil with a floating wick. Above this base rested a bowl or teapot, known as a godet, that held a comforting cure, perhaps porridge or soup. It often contained tisane, an herbal tea. When the candle was lit, it provided the heat necessary to warm the contents of the teapot, as well as the luminescence to maintain a comforting glow for patients.
As serviceable as veilleueses were, they are more memorable for their aesthetic value. The basic greenware was produced in England, France, Germany, and Spain and then marketed all over Europe and the Far East. Though most retained the basic cylindrical shape, styles often reflected a variety of regional tastes and themes.
As their use spread throughout the world, these teapot nightlights became increasingly ornate works of art. Those created for aristocrats were particularly opulent. Some of the most beautiful teapots resembled delicately detailed figurines. Floral embellishments were commonly used motifs. Others featured highly decorative panels depicting landscapes or historical scenes.
Trenton, Tennessee, is home to the rare Porcelain Veilleuses Collection. Trenton native Dr. Frederick C. Freed collected these teapots in his extensive travels. The assemblage numbers an amazing 525 teapots and includes examples from the world over. Freed donated his priceless collection to the city, and it is displayed in a permanent exhibition at the municipal building. Museum curator Marilynn Dick says, “Anyone who knows anything about art can appreciate the beauty of the veilleuses.”
Marilynn, whose father was a classmate of Dr. Freddie, has fond memories of the man who did much for the hometown he loved. In addition to viewing his teapot bequest, museum visitors are often able to lunch at the old Freed home place and tour the house.
Trenton welcomes guests each spring for the weeklong Teapot Festival, which begins with the ceremonial Lighting of the Teapots. The event offers a full slate of activities, including a Teapot Lawn contest and the Teapot Trot. The festival celebrating the enchanting veilleuses teapots concludes with the annual Grand Parade and fireworks.