Archaeologists are somewhat unique in their appreciation for all things broken, mostly due to the coveted information discarded items can tell us about those who died long ago. However, occasionally a fragment is unearthed which is both informative and beautiful. Such is the case with a lovely cobalt blue decanter stopper excavated on the grounds of Historic Kenmore. Made from leaded glass to increase clarity, it seems quite heavy when placed in the hand. Six carefully hand-cut flutes adorn each side and when held up to a light it exhibits violet-colored highlights that accent the piece perfectly. Just the stopper alone is beautiful. Imagine how striking the entire decanter would have looked! Conveniently enough, that’s my job!
During the late 18th century, the decanter and its stopper graced one of the rooms at Kenmore and held either fortified wine like Madeira, Port, and Sherry or a stiffer spirit such as rum or gin. It may have been part of a set and adorned with gold gilding that spelled out which heady beverage was contained within. I picture the decanter being picked up by one of the Lewis family’s enslaved servants on a dark night and a glint of purple from deep within the cobalt bottle shining as it reflects off of a candle while dark burgundy Madeira is poured forth into a waiting cup.
All musings aside, however, the reality is that this stopper (which I am clearly obsessed with) also teaches us about how Fielding Lewis and his family lived. The decanter was a showy piece meant for display. It could be argued that, while it was a functional vessel, its primary purpose was to emphasize the wealth of the family and to impress guests.
For us today, the stopper has a practical use. Meghan Budinger, Kenmore’s curator, was able to locate a similar vessel using the excavated stopper as a guide. While the decanter on display in Kenmore’s dining room is clear instead of cobalt blue, its shape and design closely match the cobalt decanter and stopper owned by the Lewises. Meghan continues her search for a blue decanter.
Still, visitors and obsessed archaeologists alike may marvel at its beauty. In fact, most of the ceramics and glass in that room have archaeological equivalents that have informed Meghan’s choices. Thus, when asked by visitors why we have selected the beautiful tablewares before them, we can confidently answer that it is not just because they are pretty (so very, very pretty!) but also because, thanks to the archaeological record, we know the Lewis family owned pieces like them!
You can see the clear glass decanter that is based on the cobalt blue stopper while also learning more about their ceramic cousins and about how archaeology has informed the choices of objects displayed inside Kenmore on a new specialty tour of the house called “Posh Pots and Decadent Dishes: The Lewis Family Life through their Ceramics.” Learn more about this new tour here. If antique glass is more your style, you can read more about Kenmore’s “Beautiful Glass” on The Rooms at Kenmore blog here.
Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist