The food is prepared, the guests have arrived, and the table is set with fantastic dishes gleaming in the candlelight. While it makes a beautiful dining room, gilded vessels hide narratives of exploitative trade-networks, workplace injury, and the devaluation of the body of the craftsperson.
Golden, ornate, and massive, this soup tureen is a masterwork of brass casting and ormolu gilding. When looking at this object, it is easy to imagine it atop a table, surrounded by a Rococo dining room decorated for an 18th century French noble family. As fashions changed, people began to dine a la francaise, with food dishes, like this tureen, set out on the table. While this change made the eating habits of the wealthy much more visible, the lives of the craftspeople who made these objects remained hidden. Ultimately ormolu, also called fire gilding, made it possible to cover complex designs in a thin layer of gold. Gilders mixed gold and mercury into a paste, which was then applied to the exterior of a brass object. It was heated to extreme temperatures to vaporize the mercury, which was then inhaled by the workers. On average, the craftsmen responsible for ormolu gilding showed signs of mercury poisoning early in life, experiencing severe illness or dying by the age of 40. Used in other 18th century fields like medicine and hat-making, craftspeople knew the dangers of mercury poisoning and actively worked to minimize the long term effects on their bodies. However, these measures, such as keeping a gold disk in your mouth, were ineffective and did not help prevent physical illness. The demands of ormolu makership on the body were lifelong and intense, a violent undercurrent to the growing popularity of highly-decorative dining rooms. Superficially, this object speaks to the lifestyle of the elite but by looking beneath the surface we can find much deeper narratives about the lives of those whose labor built the splendor of French interiors.