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Solving a Mystery in the Kitchen Pantry

All Things Biltmore • 02/19/16

Written By Jean Sexton

Solving a mystery in the Kitchen Pantry at Biltmore took some detective work, but our Museum Services staff finally cracked the case!

“Among the many place settings of china in the Biltmore collection, one set had remained a mystery for many years,” said Lori Garst, Curatorial Assistant.

Solving a mystery in the Kitchen Pantry
A cup, saucer, and plate from the collection of unidentified china

While the set was often referred to as “the Christmas china” because it was used during a 1931 holiday party, or “the employee china” because it was later used by staff members, the origin of the china—and its original purpose in Biltmore House—remained unclear.

Cup, saucer, and teapot featuring George Vanderbilt's monogram
Cup, saucer, and teapot featuring George Vanderbilt’s monogram

“Most of the china in Biltmore House was chosen by George Vanderbilt,” Lori said. “He selected an elegant white china with a burgundy and gold pattern, manufactured by both Minton and Spode-Copeland. It features his monogram and was used every day for family and guest meals.”

Cornelia Vanderbilt’s china matches her father’s pattern but includes her own CSV monogram.

China featuring Cornelia Vanderbilt's monogram
While Cornelia Vanderbilt’s china closely matches the pattern her father selected for use in Biltmore House, their monograms distinguish one set from another

“We know that Edith Vanderbilt ordered Cornelia’s china in 1923,” said Lori. “And Mrs. Vanderbilt requested that Cornelia’s monogram be in the same style as her father’s.  I think it is sweet that her service blended in with the style her father had chosen.”

But what of the mysterious china collection on the shelves of the Kitchen Pantry in the Basement?

Museum Services began to look for clues about its history. While not as fine as the monogrammed Vanderbilt china, the gold-trimmed white pattern rimmed in crisp navy was definitely elegant and the amount of it suggested it had been purchased with a large number of people in mind.

Solving a mystery in the Kitchen Pantry of Biltmore House
Trimmed in gold and rimmed in navy, this china is elegant, but more sturdy than the monogrammed family china in the collection

“We began with the manufacturer’s mark on the bottom of each piece,” said Lori. “Kniffen & Demarest Co. manufactured hotel and steam ship supplies, so the china was well-made and rather sturdy to stand up to use by guests and passengers in public settings.”

Biltmore conservator shows manufacturer's mark on the bottom of a china saucer
A conservator shows the Kniffen & Demarest Co. name on a piece of the so-called mystery china

While Museum Services was researching details for our Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film exhibition, they finally discovered written references to the china in conjunction with Cornelia Vanderbilt Cecil’s wedding. 

“This set was also sometimes referred to as ‘the wedding china,’ but we never knew which of its three names was correct until recently,” said Lori. “The pieces came together at last, and we realized that this was the china that had been ordered for the buffet at Cornelia Vanderbilt and John Cecil’s wedding breakfast.”

After the ceremony at All Souls Church in Biltmore Village, the wedding guests and additional reception guests (500 people were invited to the ceremony and reception; another 2500 were invited only to the reception) arrived at Biltmore House.

John and Cornelia Cecil wedding party at breakfast in the Winter Garden of Biltmore House
John and Cornelia Cecil and their attendants at the wedding breakfast in the Winter Garden of Biltmore House

The newlyweds and their attendants were served at a table in the Winter Garden, and all the other guests enjoyed a buffet in the Banquet Hall, which featured this china.

As the years passed, the Kniffen & Demarest china was still used, but its original purpose was forgotten.

Today, it’s stored in the Kitchen Pantry where it receives the same care and attention as all the other china in Biltmore’s collection.

Enjoy your own Vanderbilt china service

China pattern based on an original set used by the Vanderbilt family
Porcelain tea set from the Vanderbilt Service

Whether you prefer a tea service or an entire place setting, this beautiful porcelain serveware is based on a Sevres pattern, circa 1888, that the Vanderbilt family once used at Biltmore. The original is on display in the Oak Sitting Room, but you can now enjoy the reproduction set in your own home.

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Kim Sincox
1 year ago

What a wonderful piece of detective work! I love china and it’s great fun seeing some of their sets. Hard to imagine ordering china for 3,000!

Jan
1 year ago

Can you imagine the inward groans those who had to unpack & wash china for 3000+ kept inside? 🙄😆

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