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The samovar's precursor was the sbitennik, which was used for heating sbiten, a hot winter drink of honey and spice. A sbitennik looked like a metal teakettle fitted with a heater pipe and legs. Eventually samovars replaced them.
In the late eighteenth century, a Russian gunsmith, Fedor Lisitsyn, set up a small workshop south of Moscow, in the city of Tula, the heart of the Russian defense industry. Lisitsyn's workshop was the first to produce charcoal-burning samovars industrially and had tremendous success. Shortly afterward, many competing samovar factories started operations nearby. By the 1830s, Tula established itself as the capital of samovar manufacturing.
In the nineteenth century, samovars became iconic of Russian tea culture, associated with all levels of Russian society from the palace of the tsars to the humblest of homes it became inseparably bound to the Russian way of life. Classics of Russian literature, like those of authors Pushkin, Gogol, and Chekhov, regularly mention samovars. Chekhov even coined the idiom: "To take one's own samovar to Tula." This phrase is still understood and occasionally used by most Russians, with a meaning similar to "carry coals to Newcastle" in Great Britain.
In the second half of the century, samovar manufacturing took root in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and some industrialized parts of Siberia and the Ural region. However, Tula retained its leading role in this trade. By that time, four shapes of samovars had became traditional: cylindrical, barrel-like, spherical, and the beautiful samovar vaznoy resembling the ancient Greek vase krater.
The beginning of the twentieth century was marked by various attempts at innovation. The traditional heating method was challenged by petroleum, kerosene, natural gas, and other means of heating. However, these models proved unpopular, due to the odor of the fuels and the dangers of fire and explosion.
Railroad companies in Russia recognized the practicality and popularity of samovars, and fitted long-distance sleeping cars with them. The Luxury cars of the Trans-Siberian railroad were the first to adopt this custom. Gradually, the samovar in a railroad car was replaced by the boiler of potable water known as титан (titan) in the Soviet Union. Usually the titan was located at the end of the hallway, next to the conductor's closet, for self-service by any passengers who needed hot water during their long journey. Titans had various automatic controls, including temperature and water level (a notable advance over a samovar), a product of the technical revolution that valued practicality over aesthetics. Samovars were retained only in luxury cars under the immediate supervision of the conductor.
During World War I and the subsequent turmoil of revolution and civil war, the design and the production technology of samovars were largely simplified and made fit for the military. Roughly welded cylindrical samovars devoid of decoration are characteristic of this period.
The late 1920s and early 1930s saw Stalinist collectivization and industrialization. Small samovar-making workshops were integrated into vast factories or disbanded. Quantity took priority over quality. However, it was during this period that the largest samovar-manufacturer of the Soviet Union, the Plastmet company, was founded, in Tula.
The 1950s and 1960s brought significant changes, including the invention of the nickel-plated electric samovar. The hitherto undisputed reign of the charcoal-burning samovar came to an end in the face of such benefits as the ease of use and convenience, reduced tea-brewing time, and the ease of cleaning, let alone the longevity provided by the nickel-plating that protects brass from corrosion. Catering facilities and households embraced the new technology swiftly; only the railroads remained faithful to the smoky, charcoal-fueled, traditional samovar.
In modern times, particularly since the Olympic games of 1980, during which visitors from around the world were introduced to and purchased samovars, the samovar gained international recognition and came to be viewed as a symbol of Russia. In contemporary times samovars are mostly associated with Russian exotica and nostalgia.