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.

B1981.25.623

“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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Ten Cool But Rarely-Exhibited Artifacts Found at Ferry Farm

When you enter a museum you’re surrounded by cool stuff.  Be it paintings, fossils, or ancient artifacts, they’re all special items that you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere.  But what if I told you that the cool objects you see on display in a museum are a mere fraction of what most museums actually have in their collections?  There is just never enough room, even for the biggest museums, to display everything.  Additionally, some items are just too delicate to make available to the public.  This is one of the reasons I love my job.  My fellow archaeologists and I get a daily backstage pass to all the incredibly cool things excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  Here’s our list of “Ten Cool But Rarely-Exhibited Artifacts Found at Ferry Farm.” Be sure to click on any of the photos for more detailed views of the artifacts.

Wine Bottle Seal
wine-bottle-seal
Starting in the 17th century if you were a wealthy gentleman or tavern owner chances are you ordered at least a few custom wine bottles complete with your personal seal.  The seals were stamped in various ways, such as with names, initials, symbols, crests, and dates.  Archaeologists love them because they’re ‘talky,’ meaning the artifact yields lots of information.  A fragmentary bottle seal was found here in 2004 and bears the incomplete name of its owner. The letters visible are either a capital “I” or “J” (the English used the letter I for J), and below that are the letters “-bin”.   These few letters might refer to someone in the Corbin family, an extensive Virginia family with local ties. With a little investigation, perhaps we can flush out who was the mystery guest that brought his own bottle of wine for a visit to Ferry Farm!

Lead Whistle
lead-whistle
Instruments and toys tend to grab our imagination because they make us think about who used them and how the object got lost to time and archaeology.  In our collection we have a simple lead whistle, measuring 1 7/8” long and 3/8” in diameter, with “U.S.A.” stamped on the side.  It’s cheaply made out of lead, which was a very inexpensive material that has, for obvious reasons, been phased out of the toy industry.  In the “Good Ol’ Days”, no one thought twice about making an instrument you put in your mouth out of lead.  Maybe it’s a good thing that the person who owned the whistle lost it.

Chunkey Stone
chunkey-stone
Fun to say.  Fun to play.  Basically a prehistoric rock doughnut, this hand-ground stone was used in a Mississippian Indian game called “Chunkey.”  Warriors rolled disc-shaped stones across the ground and threw spears as close to the stone as possible.  Similar to the Italian game of bocce, but unlike the Italians who threw wooden balls, Chunkey players threw spears, which is pretty awesome.  It’s a bit of a mystery as to how it got to Ferry Farm because there is no evidence that Chunkey was played in eastern Virginia, however some of these gaming stones have been excavated in Maryland and Northern Virginia.   It is also possible that one of Ferry Farm’s colonial inhabitants collected this exotic looking artifact for their cabinet of curiosities.

“Joseph” bottle fragment
joseph-bottle-fragment
Normally broken bottle glass would have trouble finding its way onto any top ten list, but this fragment is one of a kind.  Its owner inscribed his name “Joseph” and the date “174?” into the body of the bottle. That’s not an easy or common thing to do.  The inscription is carved in an elegant and beautiful form indicating a gentry status for its owner.  While no occupant of Ferry Farm was named Joseph, Mary Ball Washington’s older brother bore that name.

Joseph Ball, though living in England, was heavily involved with Ferry Farm.  He absentee owned and operated a neighboring plantation.  Joseph was lavish in both his gifts and advice to the Washingtons.  He gave Betty, George’s sister, a beautiful silver tea set just before she married.  He offered Mary advice on how to keep George out of the Royal Navy when a plan was hatched to put the then 13-year-old onboard a ship. And maybe, just maybe, he sent over a special bottle of wine with his name engraved on it for the Washington family.

Lead Toy Hatchet
toy-hatchet
More lead toys?  Yep.  This little beauty has special significance to Ferry Farm because of the cherry tree myth.  The 3-inch lead hatchet appears to be a souvenir made during the 20th century, possibly dropped during 1932’s anniversary celebration of George Washington’s birth.  Keepsakes associated with George and the cherry tree abound in Fredericksburg.  Previous private owners of Ferry Farm were known to capitalize on the history of the property, often selling fragments of the ‘original cherry tree’ and cherry seeds to visitors. This hatchet is an obvious symbol recalling the cherry tree story that is so closely associated with Washington’s childhood.

Milk Glass Darning Egg
darning-egg
Recovered completely intact from an old burrow belonging to a groundhog, this artifact had multiple uses on a 19th and 20th century homestead.  The glass egg was a darning aid used to fill out a sock while it was repaired or could be placed in a henhouse to encourage the ladies to lay eggs in a particular spot. There is also a persistent myth that these eggs were used to kill snakes. The snake would eat the glass egg, it was believed, which would then shatter inside them.  This line of reasoning ignores the fact that snakes hunt by detecting chemical signatures of their prey and that snakes can’t really see the egg-like shape of our artifact because of their poor vision.  But it’s a story that highlights the mythology that surrounds some objects once they fade into obscurity.

Tambour Hook
tambour-hook
The tambour hook falls into the category of artifacts that are a little too fragile to display.  Made of carved bone and metal, this exceptional object was used by a gentlewoman, probably George’s sister Betty, to adorn fabric with elaborate embroidery.  Recovered from the bottom-most soil level of the Washingtons’ root cellar where it was deposited sometime between 1741 and 1760, the carved designs that cover the bone handle feature a parrot, leaves, flowing vines, and numerous flowers and represent some of the most popular embroidery themes of the time.  This hook helps demonstrates the fashionability of the Washington women, which contradicts the portrait painted by many modern biographers.

Pewter Teaspoon with Betty Washington’s Initials
teaspoon-fragment-with-betty-initials-1
Betty had some of the coolest artifacts and this one literally has her name on it.  It was customary for tea to be dispensed by the wife or by the oldest daughter in the house and Betty, as the only daughter, was clearly groomed in this ceremony as is evidenced by her own teaspoons.  Pewter, an alloy containing a number of different metals including lead (yes, more lead), wasn’t as fancy as silver but the fact that it’s customized makes it special.  This tea set appears to be part of a “practice” set that Betty used before her uncle gave her a silver tea set  around her 16th birthday.

Bartmann or Bellarmine Jug/Bottle
bartmann-bottle-1
Who doesn’t want to drink out of a jug exhibiting the large face of a crazy bearded man?  I do, and if you were a colonist in the 1700s and early 1800s, you did as well.  Originating in Germany, these face jugs depicted a ‘wild man’ of the woods character popular in Eastern European folklore. By the time these vessels made it to the English market that aspect seems to have been forgotten.  Subsequently, the English created their own story behind the bearded man revolving around their dislike for a similarly-bearded and unpopular anti-protestant cardinal by the name of Robert Bellarmine.  For more about this artifact, read this blog post.

Repaired Creamware Cherry and Flower Punchbowl
punchbowl
This artifact is cool for so many reasons.  A beautiful bowl adorned with graceful hand painted flowers and cherries (remember, we love those here), it also exhibits a complicated and tortured use-life while highlighting the importance of punch drinking in the eighteenth century.  Written about here, this bowl was owned by Mary Washington, George’s mother.  Punch bowls vary in size and this one would have been called a ‘sneaker’, which denotes a bowl small enough for guests to take turns sipping out of it before passing it to the next person.  Mary clearly loved the bowl so much that, when it broke sometime between 1765 and 1772, she had it repaired with glue.  Although the hide or cheese-based glue used would not have resulted in a vessel capable of holding punch again, she could display it on her mantle or in her china cabinet…Oh, and the glaze? It has lead in it.

Laura Galke, Site Director/Small Finds Analyst
Judy Jobrack, Assistant Lab Supervisor
Mara Kaktins, Ceramics & Glass Specialist
Melanie Marquis, Lab Supervisor
Dave Muraca, Director of Archaeology

Drinking Vessels and Their Drinks

The goal of studying archaeological artifacts and, indeed, the goal of studying history more broadly is to understand the people who lived in the past both in the small moments and in the times of monumental change.  Something as ordinary as the beverages people drank and the objects from which they drank reveal what life was like in the past.  In this post, we examine three popular beverages, the vessels used to drink them, and their historical significance.

Tea: In the 18th century English speaking world, tea was synonymous with high society. Not only was the tea itself expensive (since it was shipped from across the globe) but the entire culture around tea was costly. One could not serve tea without a proper tea service or equipage. The first English references to tea come from early 17th century English merchants abroad in Asia. However, tea wouldn’t enjoy universal English adoration until later in the century when Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza of Portugal in 1662 and brought the practice from Europe into England. From then on, tea represented wealth and high society wherever the English went, including across the Atlantic. Over a hundred years later, however, Parliament inadvertently changed tea’s beloved status amongst their North American colonists as colonists boycotted the drink to show their displeasure with the mother country’s rule. Even with that change, tea remained a highly-prized status symbol among many and even inspired some Americans to create ‘Liberty Teas’ from locally grown herbs and fruits.

Like the tea itself, teawares (the vessels in which tea was prepared and served) were fashionable and reflected societal trends.   Well-to-do families like the Lewises of Historic Kenmore exhibited their finest teawares and were expected to update their china cabinet with the most stylish wares they could afford.  Silver topped the list followed by porcelain. If those were lacking, elaborately decorated and finely potted stone and earthenwares would do in a pinch.  At the end of the Revolution, Fielding and Betty Lewis were reeling from wartime expenses so their teawares likely resembled this lovely creamware piece with a delicate strawberry flower at the base of the handle.  While not the most expensive teaware at the time, this molded creamware exhibited good taste and was suitable for the Lewis family to use while serving tea to their guests.

Drinking Vessels (2)

Punch: Much like tea, punch was also a status symbol in the 18th century. A punch’s different ingredients usually came from all over the world and were therefore quite expensive. Punch is first written about by 17th century English sailors. The word ‘punch’ is believed to come from the Hindustani word ‘paanstch’, meaning ‘five’, and may explain why historic punches have 5 parts: sweet, sour, strong, weak, and spice. Typically, the sweet was sugar, the sour was a citrus fruit such as lemons, limes, or oranges, the weak was water or tea, the strong was alcohols like rum or whiskey, and the spices could be nutmeg or cinammon. These 5-parts allowed punch to be made from any number of ingredients and to take on unique identities and flavors. Punches varied greatly between taverns and recipes (receipts) were closely guarded secrets. What was not flexible was the necessity of punch. Colonials could hardly have an elegant ball, a large celebration, or even a small get-together without the ubiquitous drink.

As with tea, imbibing punch was a communal event requiring fancy equipage.  The bowls themselves ranged from elaborately decorated to elegantly simple and came in many sizes. The smallest served a single individual while grand bowls served lavish parties with dozens of tipplers.  Some bowls even conveyed political opinions or leveled jokes at members of society.  Suitable for a modest gathering of friends, this tin-glazed punch bowl displayed at Kenmore was owned by the family during their more prosperous pre-war days. By the time they moved to Kenmore, however, this cheerfully hand-painted bowl was falling out of fashion.  Tin-glaze was less refined than later wares and was easily chipped and cracked, making it less desirable.

Drinking Vessels (3)

Fortified wine:  In 18th century America, fortified wine reigned supreme.  Lacking our own wine industry, despite the best efforts of Thomas Jefferson and others to establish wine grapes in the colonies, we relied on imported wines from Europe.  Because of the ocean journey, fortified wines such as Madeira, port, and sherry became very popular.  These wines shared one thing in common:  The fermentation process was halted by the addition of brandy.   This upped the alcohol content considerably and made the wine portable over long distances.   Most wines prefer a quiet life in a cool environment.  Fortified varieties, however, thrive on chaos and age better when subjected to extremes of temperature, humidity, and constant sloshing around in the belly of a huge ship.  These choice wines even exhibited labels documenting their torturous journeys.  Wines that traveled south of the equator before eventually making their way up the coast to the colonies were especially prized.  Once a fortified wine found its way into a household, it was likely stored in an attic or on a portico, where it would continue to improve while battered by cold winters and sweltering heat.

Today, fortified wines are considered desert wines to be consumed after dinner.  The colonists, however, needed no such excuse to pop open a bottle of fine Madeira.  They did, however, traditionally drink these more potent wines from smaller glasses.    This lovely lead glass example is hand-blown and engraved using a copper wheel.  Probably manufactured in England in the late 1700s, one can only imagine the delicious wines it once held!

Drinking Vessels (1)

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

 

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