You would be forgiven for perhaps thinking that epergne is French for “an ostentatious, overly-decorative frippery”, and to a certain extent – with regard to their Victorian glass incarnation – you’d be quite correct.
“Epergnees“ first made an appearance on French dining tables during the early 18th century, at which point they were almost exclusively made of silver. They were also an “active element” of any dinner service, being used to dispense either condiments or bonbons, sweetmeats and confits. Known more properly as ‘surtouts’ during this period, there was a further refinement by way of the ‘fruitiere’ which was of similar design but intended to be brought to the table as a post-dessert piece, laden with fruit segments which were dusted in finely-ground caster sugar.
Up to this point, the ‘container’ parts of the epergnees, surtouts or fruitieres tended to be in the form of either removable bowls or hanging baskets made from silver or glass, or as small flat-bottomed dishes in which small condiment bottles could stand. However, in common with the growing popularity of glass and its use for domestic wares (see also oil lamps and lustres), by the late 18th century more and more examples were made from the plastic of the 18th and 19th century. Epergnees were also now no longer the preserve of the French, having migrated across the English Channel and in to the consciousness of London’s polite society.
The use of glass also heralded a shift in the basic design of the pieces, as it lent itself to the production of elongated, conical flutes in place of the more traditional bowl-shaped receptacles. This development consequently made it far less practical to dispense any sort of foodstuffs from one’s epergne – trying to extract anything from a narrow, fragile glass flute would have been tricky at best, and positively fraught with danger during the latter part of a formal dinner, with wine and perhaps liqueurs having been taken. However, epergnees were by now an established feature of the Victorian dining table, and their use evolved in to a more decorative role. The delicate glass containers were perfect for displaying flowers or, less commonly, for holding candles or a wick and lamp oil.
The fact that the epergnees were now far less likely to be manhandled by guests meant that they could become more and more ornate, and their transformation from functional serving accoutrement to almost entirely ornamental feature was complete by around 1875. Forms became more fluid and almost impossibly delicate in some instances, with flower holders more evocative of arum lilies, as the organic foibles of the art nouveau were brought to bear.
Ultimately these increasingly convoluted and elaborate forms were unable to maintain their popularity once the arts and crafts movement began to gather momentum with its insistence that precedence should be given to utility over ornamentation, and their popularity waned rapidly as the 19th century drew to a close.