Getting “Judgy” With Colonial Revival Ceramics

Previously on Lives and Legacies, curator Meghan Budinger laid out a wonderful summary of the Colonial Revival movement.  At no point did she weigh-in with her opinion of Colonial Revival and she should be applauded for her diplomacy.  To be honest, though, many historians, material culture specialists, and decorative arts enthusiasts (among others) can get a little ‘judgy’ when it comes to Colonial Revival.

Copies of copies rarely turn out as nice as the original and, as Meghan discussed, Colonial Revival items conform more to our notion of how things looked in the 18th century than how they actually looked in the 18th century.

When dealing with ceramics, Colonial Revival copies are almost always ‘clunky’ compared to the beauties they seek to emulate.  This is because the reproductions are machine made, while the colonial originals were handmade and hand-decorated. It’s very hard to imitate that kind of craftsmanship with a machine.  Experts call it being ‘debased’.  The copy is simply of a lower quality and slightly distorted.

Take for example this, um, interesting platter made between 1935 and 1941 by The Homer Laughlin China Company. It is a hideous imitation of the beautiful shell edge decoration popular in the late 18th and first half of the 19th century.  Of course, not all Colonial Revival is quite this debased as this extreme example.

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This 20th century Colonial Revival reproduction made by The Homer Laughlin China Company is a ‘debased’ version of a shell edge platter from the 18th century pictured below.

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Some are actually pretty accurate, like this tasteful white granite pitcher or this stoneware mustard pot, which dates from 1993.  I’m pretty sure it came from The Cracker Barrel.

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Colonial Revival white granite pitcher.

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Colonial Revival stoneware mustard pot dating from 1993 and perhaps sold by The Cracker Barrel.

It just so happens that our awesome team of specialists (curators and archaeologists – a fun bunch) are currently furnishing the Washington house at Ferry Farm with reproductions the public may handle as we create an interactive house. Original 18th century objects are not an option.  Good colonial reproductions can sometimes cost as much as originals and can also be surprisingly hard to find.  Thus, despite our prejudices, we’re finding ourselves extremely grateful for the glut of Colonial Revival tea and tablewares currently on the market.

Colonial Revival pieces are often quite sturdy, relatively inexpensive, and no member of our staff will dissolve into tears if a stoneware crock with cobalt blue hand-painted decoration originally purchased at The Cracker Barrel in 1997 broke.  We might actually celebrate it.  And so we hunt for modern items that straddle the line between historically accurate and, if need be, expendable.  We are diligently scouring auction sites, thrift and junk shops, antique markets, and sometimes our own cupboards in our never ending quest for Colonial Revival.  We will be sure to keep you updated on our progress and hope you can visit the Washington House to see how we did!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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

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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

Bartmann Bottle: The Coolest Thing We’ve Ever Found

We excavate hundreds of artifacts every day during the field season at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and occasionally one or two really stand out.  For me, the most interesting artifacts uncovered during the past few years are fragments of a Bartmann Jug.  The combination of an animated human face and fascinating symbolism makes this particular ceramic vessel unique among the hundreds of other vessels excavated from our archaeological site.  Just imagine the excavator’s surprise when the intense bearded face emerges as the dirt gets brushed off. That intense face and the story behind it make this object, in my view, the coolest thing we’ve ever found.

Bartmann Bottle (1)

The bottle itself would have had a solid sturdy base and a round, bulbous body with a cylindrical mouth.  It may have had a pewter lid, but these rarely survive archaeologically.  Pewter was fairly valuable and would have been melted down and reused after the vessel was broken, rather than discarded with the rest of it.  The bottle was medium sized, holding approximately a liter of low-alcohol beverage such as beer or cider.  The face of the bottle itself features a raised applied decoration known as a sprig mold, which is made by pressing wet clay into a mold, letting it dry to a point where it could be peeled out of the mold, and then attaching it to the unfired bottle.

Establishing when the bottle was actually manufactured can be challenging for these vessels.  They were produced in Germany between 1550 and 1770.  The British Navigation Acts made foreign imports increasingly rare in the colonies after the early 18th century.  Knowing that the make-up of the ceramic body and glaze is German lets up narrow down the dates for this bottle to the early years of the 18th century.  It is decidedly part of the pre-Washington era material culture here are Ferry Farm.

Bartmann Bottle (3)

When looking at these bottles with their somewhat grotesque faces, one can’t help but wonder why people decorated their drinking vessels this way for some two hundred years?  What did it mean to their culture?

These Bartmann Bottles were not just made in Germany. They were also shaped by German culture.  Their molded faces were sometimes elaborate and detailed and sometimes crudely executed. They were always male and always sported a large bushy beard.  This references German folklore’s “wild man of the woods.”  He was thought to live just beyond the bounds of civilization and run feral in the wilderness, living almost like an animal.  Perhaps rather appropriate to adorn a container of alcohol with?  However, these bottles were also widely exported. When they were brought to England, they became divorced from this folklore context.  Subsequently, the English created their own story about what the face on these Bartmann Bottles meant.

Bartmann Bottle (2)

In England around 1634, the bottles began to be called Bellarmines after Cardinal Robert Bellarmine.  Superficially, the wild face was said to resemble him. On a deeper level, the name was used as a way to mock the Catholic Church and its wider anti-protestant movement that Cardinal Bellarmine headlined.  This is following the monumental split of England from papal control and its moves farther towards Protestantism.   The colonists who brought this bottle to the new world thought of themselves as English so, if they gave any thought to the grimacing man who adorned their bottle of beer, they would have likely seen the figure as Bellarmine.

This fascinating and drastic change in meaning as the object moves from culture to culture combined with the striking human features is what makes it, in my view, the coolest thing we’ve ever found.

Lauren Jones, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Technician

Photos: Glue Through a Microscope

While living at Ferry Farm, Mary Washington, mother of George, owned a creamware punch bowl with beautiful hand-painted enamel depicting a floral motif and cherry accents.  Archaeologists excavated pieces of this bowl from the cellar of the Washington home and subsequently discovered glue residue on the sherds.

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interior-glue copy

We’ve written about the importance of the bowl’s discovery here and even showed how we recreated a glue similar to the one used to repair the bowl here.

As part of our continuing efforts to learn as much as we can about the punch bowl and these glue residues, we took the sherds to the archaeology lab at Dovetail Cultural Resource Group here in Fredericksburg, where they took photos using a microscope.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

 

Lives & Legacies: The Exhibit

Fruit Dish 2

Want to see “in real life” the 18th century ceramic fruit dish we wrote about last August? You can see it and the matching sherds excavated by archaeologists on your next visit to George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

The dish sits inside the Ferry Farm visitor center in a museum display case now dedicated to Lives & Legacies.  In this exhibit case, we will showcase some of the artifacts, objects, and stories that we write about on the blog for people visiting George’s boyhood home.

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Along with taking the self-guided iPad tour “Uncovering George Washington’s Youth,” viewing the visitor center’s major exhibit “The Science of History at Ferry Farm,” and watching archaeologists at work at the dig site and in the lab, visitors can learn how archaeologists discovered fragments of the unique fruit dish and how the dish and its discovery connects three Washington sites – Ferry Farm, Kenmore, and Mount Vernon – together.

Future subjects for the display case include the glass base that may have been used as a spinning top, jewelry and personal accessories from the 18th century, and Westerwald ceramics found at Ferry Farm and Kenmore, among many others that you have seen on Lives & Legacies.  The case will be rotated regularly – stop in to check it out!

For more information about visiting Ferry Farm, click here.