SPECIAL ADVISORY: In accordance with Yale University’s revised COVID-19 protocols, the Yale University Art Gallery will close to the public beginning Friday, October 16, 2020. Learn More

American Decorative Arts
Maker: Harvey Lewis, American, w. ca. 1805–1828
Patron: Elizabeth Willing Powel, American, 1743–1830
Honorand: Sophia Harrison Otis, born 1798


ca. 1815–25


3 5/8 × 3 9/16 in. (9.2 × 9 cm, 471 g) base (Base): 3 1/4 in.(8.3 cm)
Mabel Brady Garvan Collection

Education was a mark of privilege and good breeding in the American colonies and early Republic, particularly for young women who had limited access to schooling. In the upper echelons of American society, many women read widely and exchanged ideas through letters. This inkwell embodies the symbolic importance of female literacy. It was given by Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743–1830) of Philadelphia to her close acquaintance and confident Sophia Harrison Otis (1798–1874) of Boston, members of two of the nation’s most prominent families. A second, identical inkstand was given by Powel to Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis Lewis, the adopted daughter of George Washington. The form of the inkwell employs elements popular in Continental empire design. The British porcelain manufacturer Spode made a strikingly similar inkwell with three sphinxes in the 1810s, which the Philadelphia silversmith Harvey Lewis may have used as a model. The winged monopodia on both the porcelain and silver inkstands had feathered headdresses, which transform the sphinxes into Indian women. This subtle embellishment would have had particular resonance for Powel, Otis, and Lewis, whose families were enmeshed in the politics of the new nation.

Made in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
On view
19th century
Containers - Metals

Francis P. Garvan, New York, N.Y. (1931).


Sotheby’s London, London, Sotheby’s London Sale, sale cat. (January 29, 1931), 9, no. 66, ill.

John Marshall Phillips, American Silver (New York: Chanticleer Press, 1949), 125, fig. pl. 32.

Classical America, 1815–1845: An Exhibition at the Newark Museum, exh. cat. (Newark, N.J.: Newark Museum, 1963), 91, 103, no. 98, ill.

Kathryn C. Buhler and Graham Hood, American Silver in the Yale University Art Gallery, 2 vols. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 1970), vol. 2, p. 234, no. 926, ill.

Martha Gandy Fales, Early American Silver for the Cautious Collector (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1970), 34, fig. 31.

Graham Hood, American Silver: A History of Style, 1650–1900 (New York: Praeger, 1971), 196–97, fig. 218.

Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976), 267–68, fig. 223.

Barbara M. Ward and Gerald W. R. Ward, eds., Silver in American Life: Selections from the Mabel Brady Garvan and Other Collections at Yale University, exh. cat. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 1979), 43, 169, no. 177, ill.

Harold Newman, An Illustrated Dictionary of Silverware (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987), 123, ill.

Wayne Craven, American Art: History and Culture (Boston: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1994), 191, fig. 14.1.

Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of such records is ongoing.