Fruit! It’s good for you, delicious, and often beautiful – but have you ever thought of fruit as a status symbol? In today’s world of relatively quick, inexpensive long-distance transportation, we enjoy fresh fruit from all over the world year-round. We generally take this ability for granted. In the eighteenth century, however, if you or your neighbors didn’t grow a particular fruit at home, then it had to be shipped to you at great cost. In this age before refrigerated shipping, fruit’s extremely short shelf life was magnified. As a result, a simple pineapple or lime represented a household’s wealth and the display of expensive fruits was a way to impress dinner guests. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, right?
Fruit proved such a rare luxury in the 1700s that people purchased special dishes in which to serve the fruit. These dishes also emphasized the social status of the owner because they signaled to people that this person could afford fresh fruit even if none might be available at the moment. Like the fruit, the dishes themselves came to the owner’s table from all the way across an ocean, further emphasizing their wealth. Archaeologically, we’ve recovered one such special fruit dish from George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Made of white salt-glazed stoneware around 1755, this favorite ceramic of Mary Washington, George’s mother, is heavily decorated. The entire surface of the object has some visually interesting thing to catch the eye. With a geometric design in the center surrounded by a variation of the basket-dot-diaper motif common to the time period and an intricately pierced rim flanked by scroll-work, this dish would certainly have been highly valued in the Washington household.
In the eighteenth century, one of the most important ways a person could display their standing and refinement was by hosting elaborate dinners. This meant having extravagant and highly decorated centerpieces, preferably of silver. However, if you couldn’t afford silver, then a ceramic equivalent was the next best thing. Ceramic fruit dishes, like our white salt-glazed one, even borrowed some forms and stylistic elements common on silver dishes of the time.
What makes our particular fruit dish found at Ferry Farm even more special is that sherds from an almost identical one were excavated at Mount Vernon. In 1757, not long after George Washington moved to Mount Vernon, he sent to England for a large amount of ceramics, including 100 “white stone” dishes. There were numerous other vessels ordered in white salt-glaze as well, including patty pans, mustard pots, butter dishes, mugs, teapots, slop basins, and more. Having special tablewares just for specific types of foods and condiments impressed your dinner guests with both your financial wealth and your knowledge of the “proper” way to serve things. Having the appropriate tableware was so important that when Washington didn’t receive certain items ordered from England, he complained to his supplier, Thomas Knox, writing that “The Crate of Stone ware don’t [sic] contain a third of the Pieces I am charg’d with, and only two things broke, and everything very high Charg’d.” Though showing disappointment about the broken pieces, Washington’s concern that he did not receive all he ordered hints at how fashionable the stoneware was considered. Also, given the large number of items ordered, it is impressive only two pieces broke. White salt-glazed stoneware was sturdy enough for the Washington family to use every day.
If finding similar ceramic dishes at Ferry Farm and Mount Vernon were not enough, we have also excavated very similar sherds at Historic Kenmore, the home of George’s sister Betty. Apparently, the taste for lovely and heavily molded white salt-glazed dishes must have run in the family! The icing on the cake is that we also have a complete example of a fruit dish in Kenmore’s collection of ceramics that matches the sherds recovered in digs at both Kenmore and Ferry Farm. What are the odds?
The archaeologists at Ferry Farm are working diligently to mend together as much of Mary Washington’s fruit dish fragments as possible. We’re a third of the way there. We hope to display these excavated pieces next to the complete dish so visitors can enjoy these lovely examples of eighteenth century artwork as much as we do.
The Washingtons – Mary, George, and Betty – all went to great lengths to demonstrate their status and refinement to friends and neighbors. They did so, in part, by serving exotic fresh fruit shipped to the colonies from around the Atlantic World. To serve that fruit, they used fine and fashionable ceramic fruit dishes that were also shipped great distances. Think about that the next time you enjoy a fruit cup!
Lauren Jones, Archaeology Lab Technician
Mara Kaktins, Ceramics & Glass Specialist
Melanie Marquis, Archaeology Lab Supervisor
 Email between Eleanor Breen, Director of Archaeology at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Melanie Marquis, Archaeology Lab Supervisor at The George Washington Foundation, November 12, 2010.
 Janine E. Skerry and Suzanne Findlen Hood, Salt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America, University Press of New England, 2009.