The Wine Bottle: Ubiquitous and Informative

Ah, the humble wine bottle.  There are few historical archaeological sites without them and Ferry Farm is no exception.  Our current mending project has produced about a dozen wine bottles from one Washington house cellar feature alone.  Readily identifiable because their form has changed little in the past 250 years, these beauties are sometimes overlooked in favor of fancier or more exotic artifacts.  However, there is much we can learn from the sherds of wine bottles and much history wrapped up in their existence on colonial sites.

Wine Bottles 1

Mid-18th century bottle neck and base fragments excavated from the Washington house cellar at Ferry Farm.

Let’s start with what wine bottles cannot tell us. They can’t actually tell us whether or not folks were drinking wine.  Huh?  Well, ‘wine’ bottles of the colonial period held anything from vinegar to gin and all liquids in between.   Yes, many contained wine but the modern use of ‘wine’ to describe these bottles, with their tall, cylindrical shape and dark green-colored glass, is really just a reflection of what we exclusively drink from them currently.

Most 18th and 19th century wine bottles held a variety of substances over their lifetimes.  Bottles were not cheap before industrialization made them relatively disposable and were often listed in probate inventories.  Recycling is nothing new.  Your average 18th century household carefully cleaned out each empty bottle for reuse when needed.  The inside was scoured with sand, small pebbles, or lead shot (which is a terrible idea). It is not uncommon to find wine bottles archaeologically that exhibit heavy use wear on the inside and outside from years of being drained, cleaned, refilled and used for storage, serving, and transport.  Truly, the wine bottle was a workhorse.

Wine Bottles 2

An example of what the bottles excavated at Ferry Farm looked when they were whole.

Where did these ever-present bottles come from?  For the most part, from England.  This isn’t surprising given that colonials weren’t really allowed to trade with any other countries.  While there were some early glass houses in the Americas, their production was nowhere near that of England’s well-established glass industry.  The English produced squat and sturdy wine bottles of very dark glass often dubbed ‘black glass’ able to survive shipping across the Atlantic.  They were filled before the trip and used as ballast in the ship, the contents often being worth more than the bottle itself.

For the most part, these ‘black glass’ wine bottles were filled with wine but not the wine that you’re likely familiar with.  Your typical red or white wine would not survive the months-long tumultuous ocean journey (with its extremes of temperature and humidity) from Europe to America. It would be vinegar by the time it arrived, if you were lucky.

However, wine fortified with a hard liquor such as brandy would halt fermentation and oxidation processes and make the wine both transportable AND much higher octane once it arrived for thirsty colonials.  Subsequently, a lot of the wine enjoyed in 18th century America was fortified.  Not only did these fortified wines such as Madeira, port, sherry, Masala, or Malaga survive the nasty voyage across the ocean, they actually tasted better once they reached their destination.  Fortified wines are total masochists and basically thrive under neglect and abuse.  The more rocking of the boat the better.  Fortified wines also love extremes of temperature and humidity.  In fact, bottlers often documented the voyage a particular wine took.  Madeira and Port that traveled south of the equator and then back north again fetched top dollar because they had been exposed to the extreme conditions of the tropics.

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“An English Sloop Becalmed near the Shore” (mid-18th cent.) by Francis Swaine. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

But why import all this wine?  Surely it would have been cheaper and easier to make it locally like most other colonial food and beverages.  Well, the colonists tried….and tried…and tried.  Even Thomas Jefferson, one of the great innovators of his day and a celebrated lover of wine, failed in this task, although not for lack of effort.  It turns out that European grapes do not do well in the Americas and tend to wither from disease and pests.  Additionally, North America’s few native grapes are ill-suited to making fine wine.  It was not until recently in our history as a country that we’ve succeeded in growing hybrid grape varieties that will produce a palatable wine.  We had a much better track record of making wine out of pretty much everything else (dandelions, apples, barley, peaches, quince, and any berry they could get their hands on).  Seeing as it was unimaginable that our founding fathers go without one of their favorite beverages, both wine and wine bottles ended up making their way across the Atlantic in large quantities.

All of this brings us back to the Washington family wine bottles.  Their presence is not a surprise but finding them has us pondering the importance of wine in the colonies, the intricacies of colonial transatlantic trade, and the value of seemingly everyday objects in colonial society.  Of course it’s also fun to contemplate all of the libations they may have held over the years until a careless hand shattered them and banished the bottles to the trash midden where they would await discovery by archaeologists two and a half centuries later.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Grasse, Steven.  Colonial Spirits:  A Toast to Our Drunken History.  Abrams Image, New York.  2016

Hancock, David.  Oceans of Wine:  Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste.  Yale University Press, New Haven and London.  2009.

Jones, Olive R.  Cylindrical English Wine & Beer Bottles 1735-1850.  Minister of Supply and Services, Canada.  1986.

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“It is Indeed Bad to Eat Apples. It is Better to Make Them All Cider”: When Cider Reigned Supreme in America

Happy-Thanksgiving-“It is indeed bad to eat apples. It is better to make them all cider” — Benjamin Franklin

Name a beverage consumed by all age groups, men and women alike, the poor and the very rich, from sun up to sun down, that is touted as healthy and refreshing yet also contains alcohol.  If you were a colonial American, the answer was hard cider.  In America’s early days, cider reigned supreme and, even though the beverage is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity, consumption of cider is nowhere near as high as it was during George Washington’s lifetime. To better understand early Americans’ obsession with cider, one must go back to the first European colonization of America (What a great idea! Let’s do that).

It’s the early 17th century and colonists are trying to make their new home a bit more like their old home.  One sure way to do this is to bring over plants to grow the food you already like.  Sometimes, this doesn’t work very well (grapes, for example) but, sometimes, the introduced species thrive in their new environment.  Such was the case with apples.  Technically, there are already two varieties of crabapple native to the Americas but these are not especially good eating compared to domesticated apple varieties in Europe.  Ultimately, the apple became such a popular cultivar, some land grants stipulated that to claim legal ownership you had to plant apple trees to prove you intended to stay and improve the land.

Still Life with Apples, Grapes and a Pot of Jam (1700s) by Luis Meléndez

“Still Life with Apples, Grapes and a Pot of Jam” (1700s) by Luis Meléndez. Credit: Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya / Wikipedia

That North American climate and soil was well suited to apples was especially fortuitous since colonists were also looking for things to ferment into alcohol. Alcohol was a large part of their diet, and it just so happens that apples lend themselves very well to this end.  Think about it, in addition to providing fresh fruit, apples could be dried for storage, fed to livestock in the fall to fatten them before butchering, made into apple cider vinegar which is both useful for medicinal purposes but also a key ingredient for pickling, one of the most common preservative methods at the time, and finally turned into lots of yummy fermented beverages like, apple brandy, and applejack (we’ll talk about this interesting drink a bit later), and cider..

Making apple cider is very simple, and it’s even simpler to make hard cider.  In fact, left to their own devices, apples practically ferment themselves since they are covered with wild yeast that loves to eat sugar and throw off alcohol as a pleasant byproduct.  So, colonists didn’t have to work very hard to turn perishable cider into hard cider, which could be stored longer.  Furthermore, if you expose hard cider to oxygen for too long, it will naturally turn into vinegar. What’s not to love?

Cider Making (c.1840) by William Sydney Mount

“Cider Making” (c.1840) by William Sydney Mount. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikipedia.

Did I mention how much cider was consumed during the colonial period?  It should be noted that even though it did contain alcohol it wasn’t necessarily considered an alcoholic drink.  John Adams drank a large glass of cider every morning (yep) and fancied himself an abstainer of strong drink.  Cider was described as healthy and a thirst quencher, likely owing to the slight carbonation which is also a byproduct of fermentation. Children regularly consumed hard cider, which isn’t nearly as horrific as it sounds when you take into account that it had a low ABV of around 3% and this probably made it safer to drink that most water available.

However, children were not encouraged to partake of cider’s much bigger and somewhat brutish brother, applejack.  Applejack resulted when you allowed hard cider to freeze and removed the frozen water crystals, leaving the concentrated alcohol behind.  The more times this simple distillation process was repeated the stronger the applejack becomes.  This method also does little to remove impurities contained within the cider so the result can be a very high octane skull splitter, which was still much beloved of colonials.

Although cider was a very common drink, it could also be elevated to gourmet status. Just as wine drinking has advanced to a fine art, with enthusiasts who obsess over the distinctive notes each grape produces under distinctive growing conditions, so did gentry colonists enjoy comparing fine ciders from different regions and varieties of apples.  Much was made of the ‘terroir’ of ciders, or the climate, soil, and landscape where the apples were produced.  Modern varieties of apples are much different than those available three hundred years ago so it’s interesting to ponder over the distinct flavors colonial ciders would have had, especially given that they had access to a wider variety of apples than we do today. There were thousands of varieties available across the colonies and early Republic producing thousands of distinct ciders.  So perhaps the saying should not be ‘As American as apple pie’ but rather ‘As American as apple cider’.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Further Reading

Brown, John Hull.  Early American Beverages. Bonanza Books, New York. 1966

Grasse, Steven. Colonial Spirits. Abrams Image, New York. 2016

Oliver, Sandra L.  Food in Colonial And Federal America. Greenwood Press, London. 2005

Root, Waverly and Richard De Rochemont. Eating In America. The Ecco Press. 1995

At the Kids’ Table …with George Washington?

Happy-Thanksgiving-One of the first pieces of furniture that will arrive at the recreated Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm will be the large, round dining table for the Hall.  It’s being made at a shop in Pennsylvania and we hope to have it before the end of the year.  With Thanksgiving just a week away, we wanted to take a look at the practice of dining and the furnishings it required in the early 18th century, before it became a formal ritual and before it had a dedicated room in the home.

We’ve discussed the evolution of the dining room in colonial America in a video here on Lives & Legacies and in numerous posts on The Rooms at Kenmore. As you probably recall, dining rooms did not appear in American houses until the second half of the 18th century and then didn’t become common until the end of the century.  Prior to that point (and even for a long time afterwards), meals were taken in almost every room of the house.  Furniture was moved to wherever it was needed, to take advantage of a cool breeze on a hot summer day, or the warmth of a fireplace in the winter, or simply because the number of people to accommodate changed from day to day.

What can be glossed over, however, is that early Americans didn’t need dining rooms because they really didn’t dine all that often.  They ate, yes, but not in any formal way, not at any set times of day, nor with set specific accessories.  Meals were simply brief breaks in the unending work of the day. Even in gentry families, everyone had a job or task that added to the family’s production.  Not everyone could break for a meal at the same time, so rarely did an entire family sit down together.  Meals weren’t considered a time to chat and catch up with family members, rather they were a perfunctory chance to refuel before moving on to the next task. The concept of the “family dinner” that we try so hard to maintain today is the product of a much later time period.

In a household where there were fewer chairs than family members, the men got first dibs with women and children either standing to eat or sitting down after the men were finished.  There usually wasn’t a central table but rather several spots scattered around a room or rooms where a person might set their plate or bowl while eating.  Even in a household where seating could accommodate all members of the family, children were bumped from a table and chair whenever company came to visit.  They were left to find a spot to perch elsewhere.[1]

The original Strother house at Ferry Farm was constructed during this early 18th century when meals were simply not an important part of life – none of its rooms were designated as eating spaces.   Tables and chairs that could be used for eating were found in both of the main rooms.  Even when the Washingtons enlarged the house after their purchase of it in 1738, specific rooms for dining were pretty much unheard of.

The Washington house features a room called the Hall, which was usually the largest room in a house of the time.  The space was multi-purpose, being used for everything from sleeping space and entertaining purposes to keeping livestock warm on particularly cold nights.  As the 18th century progressed, gentry families became more refined and devoted more time to increasingly formal versions of dining and the Hall eventually morphed into the dining room (probably because of the commodious space).

Augustine Washington’s probate inventory gives us a glimpse into this transitional time period.  When the inventory is taken In 1743, the large room in the Washington house is still called a Hall, and it clearly has a variety of uses, but it is stocked with two tables of considerable value and 12 chairs. This indicates that more formalized meals are taking place in the room.

Hall on the Probate

Section of Augustine Washington’s probate inventory taken in 1743 showing the furniture and personal property listed in the Hall.

The mention of two tables – one large and one small – in a hall or dining room pops up quite often in period inventories.[2]  The likeliest explanation for having two tables in a dining space is one that is pretty familiar to us modern Americans.  When it’s just the immediate family sitting down to a meal, you only need the one table.  But, when the house is full of visitors, perhaps for a holiday or special occasion, an extra table may need to be on-hand to seat…well, the kids.  Whereas the kids were bumped from the table to a spot on the floor to accommodate guests earlier in the century, by the 1740s, they were rating a place at a table, albeit an auxiliary one.

An Election Entertainment Hogarth 1754

“An Election Entertainment” (1754) by William Hogarth. The painting shows a Whig banquet thrown to win votes through food and drink, a common practice in both England and the Colonies. Two dining tables – a rectangular one and a round one – are visible. Credit: Sir John Soane’s Museum / The Yorck Porject / Wikipedia.

Interestingly, the contents of the Washington Hall at Ferry Farm mirrors almost exactly the contents of the Dining Room at Kenmore nearly 40 years later: one large table (identified as oval-shaped at Kenmore), 1 small table (identified as square at Kenmore), a large set of chairs (15 at Kenmore, 12 at Ferry Farm), one large looking glass, and a desk (a bookcase-on-desk at Kenmore and an escritoire at Ferry Farm).  Even in a very formal, elite house like Kenmore, there were still two separate tables to accommodate an overflow of diners and a desk, indicating multiple uses for such a large room.

We often find parallels between Kenmore and the Washington house in our research.  Betty Lewis learned her skills as mistress of the house under her mother’s tutelage at Ferry Farm, and so it seems logical that there would have been things that she did at Kenmore “just like mom.”  In furnishing the Washington Hall, we’ve decided to draw a visual connection between it and the Kenmore Dining Room, using one large round dining table and one small square table.  In fact, the reproduction table being made in Pennsylvania for the Washington house is based on the round table from our collection that is currently on display in the Kenmore Dining Room.

Kenmore Dining Room on 12th Night

Kenmore’s Dining Room with both the round and square tables displayed during a performance of the annual holiday theatrical drama “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” each year in early January.  This season’s performances will take place January 5, 6, and 7. Visit kenmore.org for details.

So, as you make preparations for Thanksgiving, if anyone in your household grouses about being relegated to the kids’ table this year, just tell them to remember the Washingtons.  In their house, even George sat at a kids’ table and it was a pretty big step up!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Carroll, Abigail. Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal.  Basic Books, 2013.

[2] The Probing the Past database of probate inventories from Virginia and Maryland during the 18th and early 19th century is a wealth of information.  Here are links to just three inventories that show the table configuration discussed here:

http://chnm.gmu.edu/probateinventory/document.php?estateID=287

http://chnm.gmu.edu/probateinventory/pdfs/wshgtn43.pdf

http://chnm.gmu.edu/probateinventory/document.php?estateID=122

 

 

Coffee: A Revolutionary Drink

The history of coffee is long and complex and can never be fully explored in a single blog post, however, because of my admiration for the caffeinated beverage I wanted to learn how the colonist utilized coffee.  Fortunately, in the collections at Kenmore, we not only have a selection of 18th century coffeepots and cups but also original records for coffee purchases made by the Lewis family.  These objects give us a tangible record of coffee in the colonial home but this post will also explore how the drink became popular in the colonies, how the colonials made their morning brew, and how a tax made coffee a revolutionary drink earning it the nickname “King of the American breakfast table”.[1]

ms 856 copy

Betty Washington Lewis made three purchases of coffee in January and March 1796.

The Basics

Coffee plants are flowering shrubs that produce berries which are harvested, peeled, dried, roasted, ground and, eventually, brewed to produce the cup of dark brown liquid that helps most of us get through the day.[2]

Coffee, tea, and chocolate were introduced into North America almost simultaneously in the later part of the 1600s.[3]  By the mid-1700s, coffee and tea were becoming staple drinks for early Americans. [4]

The easiest way to get a cup of coffee in Colonial America was the coffee-house, which usually was a mixture of café, tavern, and inn.  Coffee-houses tended to offer more than just a strong cup of java and had ale, wine, spirits, or even tea available. [5]  Even Fredericksburg had its own coffeehouse.  As local historian Paula Felder notes, “In 1751, Charles Julian of Norfolk, a baker, opened a coffee house and was granted an ordinary license.  When he joined the new Masonic lodge in 1756, the meetings were held ‘at brother Julian’s’ until the lodge meetings were moved to the new Town House in 1763.  The coffee house remained a prominent gathering place for many years. A ceremonial luncheon was given here in honor of George Washington in February 1784 on his first visit after the Revolutionary War.”  However, coffee-houses were not always a socially acceptable place for everyone. Nor were they always the most convenient way to get that much sought after cup of java.  As the desire for coffee heightened, it made its way into the homes showing up on the breakfast table, in-between meals, and after dinners.[6]

How to Make a Colonial Cup

In the 1700s, when you purchased coffee from your local merchant it most likely was in the form of bags of green beans.  The burden of turning those beans into the perfect cup of coffee was on the consumer.

Roasting

Domestick Coffee Man

Title page of Humphrey Broadbent’s The Domestick Coffee-man published in 1722.

The first step was roasting the green beans to a dark brown. Humphrey Broadbent, writer of The Domestick Coffee-man, explained how to properly roast the beans, “Particular Care ought to be taken in Roasting the Berries, for without doubt in that, Depends much of goodness of them Berries.  I hold it best to Roast them in an Iron Vessel full of little Holes, made to turn on a Spit over a Charcoal Fire, keeping them continually Turning, and sometimes Shaking them that they do not Burn, and when they are taken out of the Vessel, spread’em on some Tin or Iron Plate ‘till the Vehemency of the Heat is Vanished.”[7]

If you had a more primitive set up and didn’t have a roasting spit you could place them in a frying pan, known as a spider, or iron kettle in the hearth.  When the beans are heated, they slowly turn yellow, release steam, expand in size, and darken.  Once they begin to crackle, they are ready to be cooled.[8]

Grinding

By the early 18th century in Europe, coffee grinders were quite common and inexpensive.  These grinders were based on the original spice grinder. However, in the colonies, most people used a mortar and pestle to pound the beans into a coarse powder.[9]

Brewing

There were two different methods of brewing that were popular: boiling and infusion.  Broadbent helpfully explained the difference to the novice coffee drinker who wished to become a connoisseur.

“The common way of making this Liquor, is, to put an Ounce of Powder, to a Quart of Water and so let it Boil till the Head is Boyled down; but this is a very silly way…if Coffee be but very little too much Boiled it is Spoiled, and grows either Flat or Sour, but if by long Custom you will not part from your Boiling, let it not Boil above a Minute.”[10]

Broadbent much preferred infusion, stating “Put the Quantity of Powder you intend, into your pot then pour Boiling-Hot Water upon the aforsaid Powder, and let if stand to infuse Five Minutes before the Fire.”[11]

To get that lovely cup of coffee in the 1700s, you just needed to purchase the beans, roast them, grind them, and then boil them.

Equipment

As the drinking of coffee moved from the coffee-house to people’s homes, a group of tableware became associated with the drink.  Central to this tableware was the coffeepot and cups.  One of the earliest representations of these items is found in a 1674 woodcut showing an English coffeehouse where men are drinking from porcelain cups without handles and coffee is being served from a metal or earthenware jug.  Later, a print from 1710 shows coffeepots with a long straight spout and small annular porcelain bowls cups.[12]  Initially, these coffees pots and cups looked quite similar to the ones used to serve tea but, over time, they began to differ in appearance to what we today would recognize as two distinct serving sets.

The prevailing but inconclusive theory as to why the two pots changed shape is that the countries of origin of each drink played a part in the style of the tablewares.  Essentially, coffeepots and cups resembled those used in Arabic coffee houses while tea pots and tea cups resembled those used in Chinese tea rituals.[13]

Revolutionary Coffee

We know how colonial Americans made coffee and how they drank coffee but how did coffee become a revolutionary drink that Americans, who were once English, came to prefer over tea, Britain’s national drink?  The answer, in a word, is taxes.  The Tea Act of 1773 was created by the British government to bailout the financially troubled East India Company (EIC). [14]  The government told the Company that they could ship tea directly to the colonies, duty-free.  The EIC would get rid of loads of tea that was piling up in their London storerooms.  Colonists would get tea that was cheaper than the illegal stuff smuggled in.  Everyone should have been happy.  But everyone wasn’t.  The tea the Company was selling to the colonists would still be taxed under the Townshend Acts.  If the colonists purchased it, they would be indirectly accepting Parliament’s right of taxation without representation.[15]

Tea became an emblem of British oppression and a boycott of the drink became a revolutionary act.  Rejecting British culture, patriotic associations gave less than hospitable “tea parties” in Boston and Yorktown for merchants who continued to sell the politically incorrect brew.[16]  Whether politicians or housewives, Americans up and down the colonies joined the boycott and vowed to never serve tea in their homes.[17]

A Society of Patriotic Ladies

“A society of patriotic ladies, at Edenton in North Carolina” printed for R. Sayer & J. Bennett on March 25, 1775 in London. This satirical print shows American women pledging to boycott English tea in response to Continental Congress resolution in 1774 to boycott English goods. Credit: Library of Congress.

As John Adams wrote to his wife, “Tea must be universally renounced and I must be weaned, and the sooner the better.”[18]  However, the colonists still needed their caffeine and coffee stepped up to do its patriotic duty.  Consumption of coffee soared and played a small role in the creation of a new American identity. More than a drink, it became a sign of independence and unity in the midst of revolution and upheaval.[19]

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

Sources

Breen, T. H. The Marketplace of Revolution. Oxford: University Press, 2004

Broadbent, Humphery. The Domestick Coffee-Man, Shewing The True Way of Preparing and Making of Chocolate, Coffee, and Tea. London, 1722

Clark, F. (2009) Chocolate and other Colonial Beverages, in Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage (eds L. E. Grivetti and H.-Y. Shapiro), John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ, USA

Felder, Paula. “George Washington’s Fredericksburg: The Fredericksburg Scene in 1755,” Map in the Free Lance-Star, July 3, 2004.

Goodwin, Mary. “The Coffee House Historical Report, Block 17, Building 34: The Coffee-House of the 17th and 18th Centuries,” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series – 0050 (1956): http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/View/index.cfm?doc=ResearchReports%5CRR0050.xml#p12

Jamieson, Ross W. “The Essence of Commodification: Caffeine Dependencies in Early Modern World.” Journal of Social History, Vol 35, No2 (2001): 269-294

 

Regelski, Christina, “The Revolution of American Drinking,” http://ushistoryscene.com/article/american-drinking/

Root, Waverly et al., Eating in America (New York: Ecco, 1981)

Smith, Andrew F., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 2013, p 266

Ukers, William H. All About Coffee. England: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1922

Ukers, W.H. “The Early Preparation of Coffee.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol 2 (1919): 353-356

Witkowski, Terrence H. “Colonial Consumers in Revolt: Buyer Values and Behavior during Nonimportation Movement, 1764-1776,”Journal of Consumer Research Vol. 16, No. 2 (Sep., 1989), pp. 216-226

[1] Ukers, 107

[2] Ibid, 133

[3] Ibid, 105

[4] Regelski, http://ushistoryscene.com/article/american-drinking/

[5] Goodwin, http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/View/index.cfm?doc=ResearchReports%5CRR0050.xml#p12

[6] Felder, GW’s Fredericksburg; Ukers, 689

[7] Broadbent, p 8-9

[8] Ukers, “Early Preparation of Coffee”, 354

[9] Ukers, 695

[10] Broadbent, p 11

[11] Broadbent, p 11

[12] Jamieson, 285

[13] Ukers, 602; Jamieson, 285

[14] Breen, T.H. pg 298-301

[15] Ibid, pg 235-239

[16] Clark, p 276

[17] Root, p 127

[18] Smith, p 266

[19] Witkowski, p 218

Drink Your Vegetables: A Special 18th Century Wedgwood Ware

Fads come and go. Such is life.  Eighteenth century colonists were not immune to flash-in-the-pan trends.  However, given that information traveled a bit slower before the digital age, in the 18th century a ‘quick trend’ may have lasted 10 or 20 years, instead of 10 or 20 months.  Such is the case with ‘vegetable ware’, a refined earthenware molded to look like produce.  Imagine being the envy of all your colonial neighbors if you served them tea out of an elaborate ceramic cauliflower, pineapple, melon, or cabbage.  As evidenced by the archaeological record, Mary Washington, George’ mother, was similarly taken with the prospect of displaying her very own veggie-themed teaware.

The advent of vegetable ware seems to coincide with the development of bright green and yellow pottery glazes by a young and upcoming potter named Josiah Wedgwood in 1760.  He used these new flashy glazes for a number of applications, including coloring teaware molded to resemble produce.  While some combinations of ceramics and decorations had previously enjoyed decades or even centuries of popularity in the past, the demand for the initially popular vegetable ware seemed to drop off after only ten years, around 1770. At that time, Wedgewood indicated he was glad to send a shipment of overstocked vegetable ware to the colonies – a popular dumping ground for out of fashion or slightly damaged English goods.

vegetable-ware-tea-canisters-1

Ceramic vegetable ware tea canisters made at the Josiah Wedgwood’s factory in England between 1754 and 1764. Credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Mary seemed to prefer the pineapple form and owned at least one item, if not more, of this fruit-shaped tea equipage.  Her preference for the tropical fruit design was not unique.  In the 18th century, the pineapple was an incredibly sought after luxury item loaded with symbolism.  Today, many of us, especially along the East Coast, associate the pineapple with welcoming guests into our home and as a decoration for the holidays. Colonial Americans considered it a Christian symbol as well as a display of status. They readily incorporated it into the architecture of their houses, decorated room interiors with the motif, and served food and beverages out of pineapple-shaped objects.  These were all cheaper options than displaying an actual pineapple, which was well outside the price range of the average colonial American. In fact, there are accounts of people actually renting a real pineapple for a party rather than purchasing one outright.  Rented fruit!  Let that sink in for a second.

Returning to Mary’s ceramic pineapple, which is represented archaeologically by a dozen or so sherds.  It is almost certainly some type of tea equipage, although we are not exactly

vegetable-ware-sherds

Vegetable ware sherds excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

sure which tea vessel it may be.  The pineapple color and texture are unmistakable but we’ve yet to identify the specific object.  A number of forms have been ruled out. It is not a tea or coffee pot because it appears to be relatively squat with a straight or very gently sloping body and a wide rim.  What’s especially odd about this particular vegetable ware vessel is that the rim is unglazed.  This would seem to suggest that it sported a lid of some kind or perhaps endured a defect during firing.  Hopefully more of the vessel will come to light, we’ll be able to answer the question, and proudly display pineapple teaware in the newly recreated Washington house!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Tales of a Patch Stand and a Porringer

For the past year or so my focus here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm has been determining what types of ceramics were owned by the Washington family. Once we have this information we want to acquire accurate examples to place in the reconstructed house for all to see.  From door hardware to teacups, most of the details of the house will be informed by archaeology or historic documents.  If a visitor asks “Why do you have these plates on the table?”, we can say “That’s an excellent question!  Because we’ve dug up pieces of it right over here!”  Our most recent focus has been on the white salt glazed stonewares, which have been featured in previous blog posts.  In this post, we talk about fragments that have been identified as a patch stand and a porringer.

First of all, identifying whole vessels from tiny sherds involves a lot of research.  This is made all the more difficult when you’re working with a ware-type such as white salt glazed that is defined by its plain white color.  So, it’s always a thrilling moment when you’re paging through a huge book with a tiny but distinctive fragment of pottery in your hand and you manage to spot the fragment’s whole object.

My most recent ‘Eureka!’ moment involved both a patch stand and a porringer.  You’ve likely never heard these terms but you may own modern day equivalents.  A patch stand is a teapot stand, designed to elevate a teapot, arguably the most important object in a tea set, above the other tea wares.  It also serves the practical purpose of keeping the hot pot off of the table surface.

18th-century-patch-stand

18th century pearlware blue and white patch stand. Credit: Woolley & Wallis.

At Ferry Farm, archaeologists found four small fragments from just such a patch stand.  The fragments all have evidence of ‘piercing’ or the cutting out of wet clay before it was fired to form a pattern.  The pattern created through piercing also promoted air circulation under the stand. Patch stands are not common in the archaeological record so we’re very happy to have identified the sherds. Now we’ll be able to furnish the new Washington house replica with a patch stand.

The other vessel is a porringer. Although kind of a weird name, porringers were really handy and ubiquitous in every colonial household.  A porringer was simply a bowl with a handle for eating soups, porridges, stews, and the like.  You may have some equivalent in your house, like those oversized coffee mugs you can also use to eat soup or cereal.

4x5 original

A silver porringer dating from 1742 and made in Boston by Samuel Gray II. Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

porringer-handle-fragment

Fragment of a ceramic porringer handle excavated at Ferry Farm.

Stay tuned and keep your eyes out for a sweet patch stand and a nifty porringer once the Washington house is finished!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist