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Caring For a Fragile Part of Biltmore History

Posted on 08/17/2015 by Jean Sexton Comments(5)

If you have a set of fine china or crystal handed down in your family, you can imagine the care it takes to clean and preserve all the place settings and glasses in the Biltmore collection!

Conservator looks at china in cabinet in Butler's PantryThere are three generations of china and crystal stored in Biltmore House, and much of it is more than 100 years old. The china is stored in glass cupboards on two levels in the two-story Butler’s Pantry, and a comprehensive inventory system helps our conservators keep track of each object. A unique identification number is assigned to every dish and glass, the location of the piece is recorded, and a digital photo of it is included in an inventory database.

Cleaning all the china and crystal in the Butler’s Pantry is a process that takes several weeks to complete. Each piece is dusted, wiped with a mixture of ethanol and water, and dried with lint-free cloths. All the objects are inspected for unstable cracks.

“Most of the cleaning and dusting is done in the Butler’s Pantry, because the less we move such fragile pieces, the better,” said Genevieve Bieniosek, Associate Furniture Conservator.
Crystal glasses with George Vanderbilt's monogramDuring a recent cleaning project, the conservators noticed that some of the crystal on display was suffering from ‘glass disease.’ According to Genevieve, this is a condition where components in the glass structure leach out over time, causing the glass to appear cloudy. “If left untreated,” she said, “it will eventually create a fine network of cracks over the piece.”

The glasses were treated by washing them with mild soap and water, drying them with soft towels, and letting them air dry for several hours. “By treating them now, we avoid permanent damage from the glass disease,” Genevieve said.

In addition to cleaning the fragile collections, our conservators are always looking for ways to improve the preservation process.

“We recently looked into different types of padding material to keep the china safer, and placed sheets of polyethylene foam between each dish. The material is very stable, so the sheets don’t break down and create chemicals that could harm the china,” said Genevieve.

Cup and saucer with Vanderbilt monogramThe table in the Breakfast Room features place settings of the original china and crystal George Vanderbilt chose for Biltmore House. To see more of the Vanderbilt china and crystal collection up close, take our guided Upstairs – Downstairs Tour of Biltmore House, which goes behind-the-scenes into the Butler’s Pantry.

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Posted on 08/15/2016 By Amy W

Interesting. I love seeing the family china in the house and have some heirloom china of my own. I wanted to collect the reproduction set sold in the gift shops until I saw it in person. The quality is pretty poor and looks and feels more like Corel than fine dishware. Plenty of companies make lovely heirloom quality china now. I would be willing to pay a higher price for something that is a little closer to the original.

Posted on 08/15/2016 By Bonnie T

I am curious as to manufacturers of crystal and china the Vanderbilt family purchased? I am a collector and I am always fascinated by any china and crystal I get a good look at when touring house.

There are several manufacturers represented in the collection. The china manufacturers include some of the finest porcelain factories such as Minton, Spode, Royal Worcester, Wedgewood and Sevres to early 20th century factories like Mercer Pottery Company and Aynsley. Most of the glassware is Baccarat or Thomas Webb. - Biltmore Blog Editor

Posted on 08/10/2016 By Phyllis R

I have an old old I believe to be iron stone...chamber pot marked biltmore on the bottom...any info?

Hi Phyllis, We do not know of Biltmore being connected to the manufacturing of any stoneware unless it is Biltmore For Your Home. There were several patterns by various manufacturers named Biltmore but, our research shows those are not connected to this estate. - Biltmore Blog Editor

Posted on 10/06/2015 By Biltmore E

Mary, You should avoid excess handling of dishes because of the risk of drops and breaks. It is fine to wash dishes that are dirty. Use a plastic dishpan (to avoid hitting the sink faucet and sides). Only a little soap is needed; more will make the dishes slippery and easy to drop. Be sure to completely rinse and dry, because soap residue and moisture will attract dirt. Avoid very hot water or dishwashers- the high temperature and harsh detergent can cause damage.

Posted on 09/20/2015 By Mary M

What a huge job! I was told by a local antique dealer that all dishes should be washed in warm soapy water twice a year to stop them from becoming brittle so I was surprised to read that the Biltmore dishes are surface cleaned only. Is there a difference in techniques depending on the dish material?

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