Making 18th Century Glass & Ceramic Replicas [Video]

Our Archaeology team reveals how they are creating replica 18th century glass and ceramic objects that visitors may touch during tours of the Washington house replica at Ferry Farm.

Learn more about the Washington house replica here.

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All About Sugar Cones

Furnishings posts logo finalIn a post several months ago, we discussed a piece of furniture listed in Augustine Washington’s 1743 probate inventory that gave us some interesting insight into the daily life of the Washington family – the sugar box.  Recently, our reproduction sugar box arrived and is now on display in the Parlor, just as the probate inventory indicated.  It’s been popular among our visitors, most of whom had probably never given much thought as to how colonial Virginians used and stored sugar. It also began to raise some questions among our staff.  Turns out, there’s a lot more to the story of sugar in the 18th century than we thought!

Sugar box 1

The sugar box was made by Fredericksburg craftsman Steve Dietrich, who used a cellarette in the Kenmore collection as inspiration. It is made of black walnut from King George County, and has hardware similar to fragmentary pieces found in archaeological excavations at Ferry Farm.

Sugar box 2

Sugar box with the lid raised.

By now, most history buffs know that refined sugar was sold by 18th century merchants in the form of cones, usually called loaves, which were wrapped in bright blue paper and sealed with red wax.  You can even buy souvenir sugar cones in any number of historic site gift shops.  Perhaps because we’re accustomed to seeing these small souvenir sugar cones, and because we hear it reiterated time and again that refined sugar was such a precious commodity in the 18th century, we tend to think that colonial Americans kept one of these dainty cones safely under lock and key in a little chest, carefully rationing out tiny portions as needed.  That notion, however, is quickly squashed when you see the sugar box in the Washington house.  The interior compartments of the box – there are two of them – are quite wide, and very deep, too, measuring 14 inches deep, 14 inches long, and 11 inches wide..  If the box was intended to hold two loaves of sugar, how big were these cones?? As often happens in our line of work, one question leads to another, and sometimes you discover some interesting and little-known facts.

Sugar box 3

Sugar loves and nippers inside the sugar box.

The Kenmore historic manuscript collection came in handy in addressing these questions.  This document collection includes more shop accounts and receipts for purchased goods than any other type of document, and it was an easy task to do a quick search for records relating to the purchase of sugar.

Betty and Fielding Lewis made regular purchases of “loaf sugar,” “sugar loaves,” “white sugar,” “brown sugar,” and sometimes “brown sugar loaves.” The prices they paid ranged all over the place, probably indicating a fluctuating market or scarcity at any given time.  On occasion, the account records gave size and weight information on the loaves being purchased, and they were impressive! The smallest loaf mentioned weighed 5 pounds, 9 ounces.[1]  The largest? It came in at 50 pounds![2] Interestingly, that 50 pound sugar loaf cost £3, 15 shillings whereas the 5 pound loaf was valued at roughly 7 shillings, meaning the 5 pound loaf was worth significantly more per pound than the much larger cone.  Even taking a fluctuating market into account, that’s an enormous difference.  What would cause that?

Sugar loaves

A closer view of the sugar loaves.

Sugar nippers

Sugar nippers were used to cut the loaves.

The answer to both the questions of why sugar cones varied in size so much, and why their value could be so wildly different lies in how refined sugar was produced.  Get ready – you had no idea this was how sugar was made! First, raw sugar from sugar cane was boiled with lime water to remove impurities (yep, lime!).  The resulting liquid was mixed with egg whites, ox blood or sometimes charcoal to further purify the liquid (yep, blood!).  This step produced a layer on top of the sugar liquid that was scraped off and put aside  – it was known as the scum (more about this later).[3]

The sugar liquid was then alternately re-boiled and allowed to evaporate a few times before it reached the optimal thickness, and was then left in a vat to cool.  As it cooled, the liquid began to crystallize, at which point it was poured into cone-shaped molds.  The pointed end of the mold had an open hole in it, but this was initially plugged with a twist of paper.  Once the sugar began to harden, the paper plug was removed so remaining liquid could drain out.[4]  This liquid was also saved and set aside  – it was called the bastard (more about this later too).

Sounds pretty straight forward, but that’s not the end.  The process up until this point produced a more refined, light-color sugar…but it’s still not the pure, bright-white sugar that was so highly coveted.  How did they get the sugar to that final state? Well, a layer of white clay slip was poured over the large end of the cone, and slowly the clay percolated down through the sugar cone, adhering to particles and pushing out any remaining molasses.  This process might be repeated two or three more times to make the most valuable refined sugar.[5]  In the end, those 18th century folks who wanted the good stuff were actually ingesting quite a bit of lime and dissolved clay in their daily cup of tea.  Delicious!

Anyway, once the whitening process was complete the dried cones were carefully tapped out of their molds and the hardened lump of clay that had formed at the nose of the cone was broken off, giving the sugar cone its distinctive bull-nose shape.  These cones were then wrapped in blue paper, which enhanced the bright white color.

Now, back to those scums and bastards.  Both of these bi-products could be recycled again and again to make increasingly inferior sugar, each batch being less refined and less white (and requiring more lime, clay and blood to make it look good).  Eventually very little of either was left, and the resulting “rubbish scums” were simply thrown out.  The inferior sugar liquid produced in this recycling process didn’t crystallize as easily as pure sugar liquid did, and so larger and larger cones were needed to form it.  Therefore, the larger a sugar cone, the lesser the quality of its sugar.  And thus, larger cones were cheaper than smaller ones.  The best sugar came in cones about 5 inches tall, while merchants could acquire mid-range sugar in cones up to 3 feet tall and 14 inches in diameter.[6]  But any level of refined sugar was still a luxury.  Betty and Fielding Lewis’s accounts show that when white sugar was scarce or expensive, they resorted to cheaper molasses (which was actually itself a bi-product of the bastards) to sweeten their foods.

So, now we know why the compartments in the Washingtons’ sugar box were so large.  For general, daily use, they probably purchased medium-grade sugar cones at about 2 feet tall, 7 inches in diameter.  One of those cones might last them for the better part of a year, assuming they could keep the bugs away and keep the sugar relatively dry in Virginia’s summer humidity (no easy task, and likely meant that they simply didn’t use sugar in the summer).

As we know from teawares recovered archaeologically [PDF], Mary Washington was an avid tea drinker and collector of fine teawares. We can also surmise that she may have invested in the occasional small cone of truly fine sugar to serve guests to her tea table in the Hall Back Room, where she did her entertaining.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Lewis, Betty in Account with John Legg, 20th January 1794. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 365.

[2] Account, undated. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 1099.

[3] Porter, George Richardson. The Nature and Properties of the Sugar Cane: With Practical Directions for the Improvement of Its Culture, and the Manufacture of Its Products (London: Smith, Elder, 1843), 271-273.

[4] Magid, Barbara H. Sugar Refining Pottery from Alexandria and Baltimore, Ceramics in America 2005, Robert Hunter, ed. (Milwaukee, WI: Chipstone Foundation, 2005), 223-224.

[5] Silliman, Benjamin, Manual on the Cultivation of the Sugar Cane and the Fabrication and Refinement of Sugar (Washington, D.C.: Printed by Francis Preston Blair, 1833).

[6] David, Elizabeth. English Bread and Yeast Cookery (Middlesex: Penguin, 1977), 139.

Artifact, Object, Repro: Part 3 – Imari & Famille Rose Porcelain

Furnishings posts logo finalToday, we revisit the Chinese Export Porcelain (CEP) reproduction ceramics now displayed or to be displayed in the future in the Washington house replica at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  We’re examining the artifacts recovered at Ferry Farm, the complete 18th century objects those artifacts represent, and the reproduction pieces inspired by these artifact sherds as well as by the complete originals.  This is the final post in this three week series and in it we’ll take a look at two special styles of CEP known as imari and famille rose.

These sherds are CEP like the blue and white porcelains we wrote about in part 1 but they are in different colorways, namely “imari” (blue, red, orange and occasionally some gilt accents) and “famille rose” (pink, orange and some green).  Sometimes, the exterior of teacups, bowls and saucers were painted an opaque brown, which is a style known as “Batavian.”  Our fragments suggest some Batavian pieces were in use in the Washington house, as well as some that show gilding. 

Buildings, people and fish were all popular motifs in imari and famille rose palettes.  Famille rose was one of the earliest of the CEP decorative styles, dating as early as the 1720s.  If a colonial American family managed to obtain a piece of famille rose CEP, it would be a treasured possession for generations.

Again, we have located individual pieces in period-correct shapes, that are decorated in colors and motifs that belong to the imari and famille rose palettes.  While interest in all things Asian may have reached its height in 18th century Europe, the style had several resurgences over the ensuing years, including in the early 20th century, which helped us greatly in our hunt for suitable reproductions of CEP.  During that time, Japanese potters began to churn out massive quantities of porcelain decorated in what became known as the “geisha girl” style, using green, orange and pink enamels.  The decorations depicted geishas in gardens near buildings.  While geishas may be a Japanese cultural theme, the colors, the delicate ceramic, and the inclusion of buildings and flowers all reference Chinese famille rose.

These pieces were intended for the Western market, and were often found in American dime stores, or given away as premiums in packages of tea.  They were produced from the 1890s, through World War II and even during the Allied occupation of Japan.  As a result, they’ve become highly collectable and we were able to find several different forms to add to our collection of stand-ins for famille rose tea wares.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Artifact, Object, Repro: Part 2 – White Salt-Glaze and Westerwald Stonewares

Furnishings posts logo finalToday, we continue our look at the different ceramics displayed or soon to be displayed in the Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  We’re examining the artifacts recovered at Ferry Farm, the complete 18th century objects those artifacts represent, and the reproduction pieces inspired by these artifact sherds as well as by the complete originals.  Last week, we learned about the blue and white Chinese Export Porcelain reproductions gracing the house.  This week, in the second post of this series, will investigate the white salt-glaze stoneware and the Westerwald stoneware.

These fragments are from white salt-glazed (WSG) stoneware dinner plate rims, and show two different styles of molded decoration.  The pattern in the above photo on the left was known as “dot/diaper/basket” and the pattern in the above photo on the right was known as “royal rim.”

 

Molded WSG came into existence in the 1740s, so the Washington family was right on trend.  A few decades later, creamware would replace it as popular dinnerware, but the rim patterns found on WSG were often very similar to those used on later creamware.

During the height of the Colonial Revival decorating style in mid-20th century America, the patterns used on WSG and creamware back in the 18th century had a major resurgence.  Several American potteries started producing white stoneware table wares, similar to WSG, with glossy surfaces similar to creamware, using molded rim decorations that were almost exactly like their 18th century predecessors.  The Canonsburg Pottery outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, produced dot/diaper/basket plates under the pattern name of American Traditional from the early 20th century through the company’s closure in 1978.  The Red Cliff Company pottery in Chicago produced plates with a rim pattern taken from the “royal” rim style on 18th century creamware (which was similar to an earlier WSG rim) under the pattern name Heirloom from the 1950s until their closure in 1977.  Similarly, Sears sold an almost identical plate under the pattern name American Federalist until the mid-1980s.  Luckily for us, all of these 20th century patterns are collectible and we found many of them in stores and on-line.

C1 - Westerwald Artifact

The above fragment came from either a mug or a jug made from grey stoneware decorated with cobalt blue glaze, known as Westerwald.  The Washington family owned quite a bit of Westerwald ceramic, as did the Lewis family at Kenmore.

C2 - Westerwald Mug

Westerwald pottery originated in 17th century Germany, and it is still produced there today.  It was a popular style for traditional German steins, often with pewter lids attached.  In the 18th century, it was often made for export to England and was therefore decorated with the “GR” emblem, referencing Georgius Rex (King George).

C2 - Westerwald Repro

During one of our treks through a thrift store, we came across this lidded Westerwald mug, and we were amazed at how similar to our 18th century fragments it was.  So amazed, in fact, that we questioned whether or not it might actually be an antique piece (that somehow remained in pristine condition)! A look at the bottom revealed a very 20th century maker’s mark, however, but it also spurred a desire to find out more about the company that was producing such excellent Westerwald. The mark indicated that the Markpiece was “Original Gerzit,” and some internet research revealed that the Gerzit Company in Höhr-Grenzhausen, Germany, was originally the pottery founded by Simon Peter Gerz in 1857.  The family owned and continued to operate the pottery through World War II, at which time they changed the name to Gerzit.  By German law established in 1887, Westerwald produced for export has to be marked Made in Germany.  Westerwald produced for sale in Germany doesn’t have to carry a mark at all.  Any Westerwald produced after World War II for export has to specify whether it was made in East or West Germany.  Putting all of that together, and comparing it to the mark on our newly acquired mug, shows us that it was produced sometime between 1949 (when the company name changed) and 1997 (when the company closed) and was originally intended for sale within Germany.  How it ended up in a thrift store in Virginia is anyone’s guess, but it was a very lucky find for us!

In part 3, we’ll revisit Chinese Export Porcelains to see imari and famille rose artifacts, originals, and reproductions that will go in the Washington house.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations