Alison Sofield - Volunteer Collections, Whangarei Museum
Many Victorian dinner tables, particularly on special occasions, featured a large centerpiece ornament, usually containing ornate floral arrangements or sometimes food, sweets or bon bons as they were known. These ornaments were called epergnes (pronounced “apern”), often made of silver, though could be made of glass, pottery or plate.
Generally, an epergne had a large central bowl or basket sitting on three to five feet, though there were many variations in style. Smaller bowls were arranged around the central bowl on branches from the center. Must have been a bit of a nightmare to polish!
The name comes from the French, epergne, which means “saving” which meant that guests could help themselves to food from the bowls of the epergne without having to pass plates around. A little like the “lazy Susan” popular in the 1960s.
Often epergnes were given as wedding presents in both Victorian times and into the early 20th century. Books and magazines of the Victorian age agreed that the art of flower arranging was an accomplishment all young ladies should acquire and epergnes were frequently used for this. The most popular style of Victorian arrangement was a tightly compact mass of flowers, greenery, grasses and ferns. The two level epergne with a flared top for flowers and the lower tier for fruit, prominently displayed in the middle of the dining table was deemed the perfect arrangement.
Whangarei Museum holds an epergne with a strong floral connection. This epergne was a prize in the Whangarei Agricultural and Pastoral Show of 1927 and was won by D. J. Fraser for her flowers. While the epergne was EPNS, electro plated nickel silver, the little plaque with the winner’s name engraved on it is silver, bearing the marking for Birmingham 1917. The epergne was donated to the Museum by the Whangarei Ladies Gardening Club.
This epergne is comprised of one large central holder surrounded by four smaller holders. It must have looked very grand filled with flowers on a starched white tablecloth.