What do the Marianne Moore room and the American Samoa state quarter have in common? They both feature a tanoa. A tanoa, as I just learned this week, is a Samoan ceremonial bowl. Marianne Moore’s brother Warner sent her the bowl as a gift, presumably when he was stationed in Samoa as a Navy chaplain between 1932 and 1934.

Tanoa. 2006.3092. The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia

If you’ve been in the Marianne Moore room, this item is on the sideboard, on the right as you walk in. The glass insert is not part of the tanoa proper, but was made to fit it. Although Moore apparently kept subway tokens in her bowl, traditionally the tanoa is used for the ritual drinking of ‘ava (a drink that in other Polynesian dialects is known as kava).

‘Ava is a beverage produced from the dried root of the ‘ava plant (Piper methysticum). It is important throughout Polynesia and the traditional preparation of the drink was described by the one of the scientists who visited Tahiti on Captain Cook’s second voyage in 1773:

This root is cut small and the pieces chewed by several people who spit the macerated mass a bowl where some water milk of coco nuts is poured upon it. They then strain it through a quantity of the fibres of coco nuts squeezing the chips till all their juices mix with the cocoa nut milk and the whole liquor is decanted into another bowl.

‘Ava was and is a key part of important Samoan
occasions, both political and religious, although now it is typically ground or grated rather than chewed. The drink is ceremonially
consumed while seated in an ‘ava circle and the order in which the
members of the circle are presented with the ‘ava is strictly prescribed. The importance of ‘ava in Samoan life is illustrated by the official seal of American Samoa, which features the tanoa in the center, along with the staff and fly whisk used to signify rank in the ‘ava ceremony.

The tanoa bowl is also central to the Samoan quarter. Apparently all three potential designs that were drawn up for the quarter featured the ‘ava bowl: “These included the ava bowl, whisk and staff and coconut tree concept; a
man with traditional Samoan tattoo holding an ava bowl; and a
traditional Samoan guest house with a head-dress and ava bowl. ” 

There is a second, similar bowl in the Moore collection, although the small size of this one (only 3″ across) makes it seem more of a souvenir than a potentially functional item.

Tanoa. 2006.4127. The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia

Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog