The Colorful Glass Tablewares of the Washington Household

As work continues on the reconstructed Washington family home at Ferry Farm, we archaeologists are identifying items that were owned by the Washingtons so we can eventually fill the reconstructed house with plates, bowls, glasses, and many other objects based on artifacts we’ve discovered.  In a previous blog post, we looked at some of the fancy colorless glass that adorned the Washington family’s dining table.  While this clear glass definitely dominates our collection, we’ve also discovered quite a few vessels of colored glass including deep cobalt blue, amethyst, smoky quartz, and milky white.

Glass is made from silica sand, soda ash, and lime. Its color is dictated, in part, by impurities in the silica sand such as iron which causes the glass to turn the dark shades of green seen in early colonial wine bottles.

Early glassmakers found ways to reduce the amount of this iron and created colorless glass. Colorless glass was by far the most common used as tableware. Much of the clear glass on Mary Washington’s table was also made with a lead oxide additive, which achieved the desired “crystal clear” look and produced heavier and more refractive table glass.

Early glassmakers also found that when other types of metal oxides were added to the silica sand, soda ash, and lime, the result was different colors of glass. This colored glass could still be infused with some amount of lead oxide to give it clarity.

Glassblowing

French glass blowers at work. Credit: Bill Lindsey / Society for Historical Archaeology

The glass belonging to the Washingtons discussed below was handmade in the 1700s, meaning it was mouth-blown by a skilled glass blower and, in some cases, hand decorated.

Cobalt Blue Goblet or Wine Glass
Our first piece is a base sherd with partial stem.  The beautiful sapphire color of this sturdy stemware was created using cobalt oxide as a coloring agent.

Cobalt Blue Goblet Base

Cobalt Blue Goblet Base

Likely made in England, it has a rather hefty base compared to our other stemwares and belonged to a goblet or wine glass. Any number of beverages could have been held in this glass, although today we commonly associate goblets with water and wine glasses with, well, wine.

Cobalt Blue Goblet

Cobalt Blue Goblet

Smoky Quartz Wine Rinser
The wine rinser has passed out of use in modern society.  It was used on the formal gentry table for washing wine glasses between uses or meal courses. When a new wine was brought to the table, the glasses would be placed in the rinser to flush the previous wine from the glass.  The small spouts on either side are meant to support an upside-down wine glass by the stem in water.

Wine Glass Rinser with Wine Glass

Wine Glass Rinser with Wine Glass

Not only did tableware like this reflect wealth enough to afford multiple wines and meal courses, it was also a colorful piece that stood out among the colorless wine glasses on the table. The smoky-colored lip fragments and the thin, blue green fragments in our collection are believed to be from two different wine rinsers.

The smoky fragment is a rather unusual color but was created with similar metal oxides as the blue/green piece. Greys, greens, and colors-in-between are created using mixtures of iron, chromium, and copper. Adding cobalt to this mix created variations of blue/green.

The amethyst rinser pictured below is from our own collection at Historic Kenmore. Amethyst glass was created using manganese and sometimes nickel.

92.001.7

Amethyst Wine Rinser from the Historic Kenmore collection.

Enameled Milk Glass Tumbler
This tumbler or beaker fragment is made from opaque white or ‘milk’ glass and was produced by adding tin or zinc oxides, fluorides, and phosphates to the glass.  Germany was known for its production of milk glass but it was produced in other parts of Europe as well. In general, tumblers were used for mixed alcoholic beverages and, like other table wares, reflected the status the owner wanted to present to visitors.  Although it is difficult to see, this vessel was hand-painted or ‘enameled’.  Centuries in the dirt were not kind to the decoration, however, and we are left only with a ghost of the original painting known as a ‘fugitive design’.

Enameled Milk Glass Tumbler

Milk glass with fugitive design recovered by Ferry Farm archaeologists.

At one time, this glass was vibrant and colorful and was likely gilded with gold leaf like the German example pictured below.

Amethyst Glass
We only have a small fragment of deep purple amethyst glass, and cannot determine a vessel form without a bigger piece.

Amethyst Glass (2)

Small piece of amethyst glass recovered archaeologically at Ferry Farm.

Again, like with the other colored pieces of tableware, amethyst was for formal dining and a showpiece to visitors. The shape and faceting of this fragment may have resembled this circa 1800 amethyst goblet.One of the rarer table glass colors is Amethyst. As mentioned earlier, this color was created with the addition of manganese and sometimes nickel as a coloring agent.

Follow Lives & Legacies for updates on the Washington family’s glasswares we are identifying at Ferry Farm. More discoveries await!

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Artifact Cataloger & Field Monitoring Technician

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramic & Glass Specialist

Source:

Mackay, James. Antiques at a Glance: Glass.PRC Publishing Ltd. London. 2002. Print.

These Are A Few Of My Favorite (Broken) Things: Cobalt Blue Decanter Stopper

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!

Cobalt Stopper

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.

Kenmore Decanter (2)

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!

Kenmore Decanter (1)

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