Rhapsody in Flow Blue: the History of a Plate

Whenever we at CAP come across an interesting artifact, it sparks the inevitable, if inelegant question, “what was this thing doing on our campus?” It’s a simple question, but I’ve often found as I delve into researching an artifact that the journey of that object to our campus is connected not only with MSU’s history, but also with broader themes in American and even world history. This blog post explores how a broken dinner plate in an MSU professor’s trash pit is connected to a larger story of global trade, the rise of the middle class, and the beginnings of consumer society.

In his last blog post, Jeff discussed some of the decorated ceramics from the Gunson assemblage, the large collection of artifacts unearthed during excavations near Hannah Administration building. These artifacts date from the 1890s to the mid-1920s and are likely from a trash pit associated with the remodel of Professor Gunson’s house. One of these artifacts was a dinner plate decorated with a blurry, blue pattern on a white background.

Early 20th Century Flow Blue Johnson Brothers "Montana" Pattern

Early 20th Century Flow Blue Johnson Brothers “Montana” Pattern

As it turns out, this blurriness is not due to a manufacturing error or the effects of the elements, rather it is a decorative style known as “flow blue.” The name refers to the blue glaze that “flowed” as it was fired, giving patterns a characteristic blur. Flow blue was widely popular from about 1830 to 1915, and several pieces have been found on MSU’s campus.

Chinese export porcelain vase. Image courtesy Peabody Essex Museum

Chinese export porcelain vase. Image courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum

Flow blue pottery was first manufactured in England sometime in the 1820s, but its origin story begins in China over a century earlier. In 1700, the East India Trade Company had recently secured England’s first successful trading post in Taiwan. As trade between China and England increased, so did exports of Chinese porcelain to Europe. Chinese porcelain was strikingly beautiful with rich, blue patterns hand-painted on stark white vessels. It was also delicate and subject to high tariffs, making it expensive and difficult to transport. Only the wealthiest could afford to import porcelain, adding to its allure.

English potters spent the next 100 years trying to replicate Chinese porcelain to meet demand for such a product. The difficulty lay in producing vessels that matched the bright white of porcelain. After many attempts including salt-glazed earthenware, creamware, and pearlware, the desired effect was achieved in the early 1800s with ironstone, a white-glazed stoneware.

While Chinese porcelain was hand-painted, transfer printing technology developed in the mid-18th century created an opportunity for potters to market their products to a wider audience. Transfer printing uses ink and damp tissue paper to transfer designs from an engraving to a piece of pottery. This method allowed for quick and easy application of designs, which reduced the cost per item. The result was an affordable luxury that could be sold to the emerging Victorian middle class.

Flow blue plate featuring Oriental motifs. Image from passionforthepastantiques.com

Flow blue plate featuring Oriental motifs. Image from passionforthepastantiques.com

Transfer printed pottery became a highly successful early form of mass production, and precipitated some of the earliest mass marketing efforts. Transfer printed products could be produced cheaply and in large quantities, but in order to drive up demand, potters employed new marketing techniques such as catalogues, traveling salesmen, and showrooms in major cities. Items that were once primarily seen as utilitarian became decorative, collectible status symbols for the middle class.

One slight disadvantage to transfer-printed items is that they tend to have an overly crisp look that makes them appear obviously manufactured, rather than hand-painted. No one likes to look cheap, so potters had to come up with a way of disguising this quality.

Enter: Flow Blue. Cobalt oxide, the compound responsible for the blue color in transfer printing inks, tends to bleed slightly when vessels are glazed and re-fired. The bleeding produced designs that appeared handcrafted, hid minor cosmetic defects, and thus looked more expensive. The blue could be made to “flow” even more with the addition of lime or ammonium chloride.

Flow blue factory second. Image from hobbylark.com

Flow blue factory second. Image from hobbylark.com

It was sometimes difficult to control the amount of “flow.” Manufacturers ended up with large stocks of factory seconds rejected because the patterns were too blurry. Factory seconds were shipped to the US and sold cheaply in the American market. Here, flow blue became especially popular with the middle class who could now afford to buy these decorative items.

Flow blue was printed on a variety of mediums, but ironstone was particularly popular in America because it was durable and impermeable, which made it more sanitary than earlier, more porous ceramic wares. However, ironstone could only be decorated in a limited number of ways because few glazes other than the blue transfer-print could withstand the heat of firing. This meant that a lot of 19th century ironstone was decorated in flow blue—tea sets, dinner plates, and even dog bowls—and potters had to get creative with their designs.

By the late 1800’s, more than 1500 patterns were available in flow blue. Early flow blue patterns mimicked Chinese imports, featuring imagery such as pagodas, temples, and mountains. Later, English pastoral scenes and floral motifs became fashionable. The plate recovered from Professor Gunson’s trash pit features a floral “Montana” pattern manufactured by the Johnson Brothers.

The Montana pattern found on the plate in the Gunson assemblage dates to about 1913, which means Professor Gunson may have had some of the last flow blue exported from England. Around 1915, most English manufacturers stopped making flow blue. The cobalt used by English potters came from Saxony in Germany, and World War I effectively cut off this supply.

As I researched Gunson’s dinner plate, I couldn’t help but think about how this object connects MSU to a whole range of historical events. Flow blue pottery is the result of a century of English attempts to replicate Chinese porcelain, the demand for which was created over hundreds of years of trade between Western Europe and China. The transfer printing technology used to produce flow blue pottery is one example of long-term trends in mass production and mass marketing. Even the fact that such a plate made it here to a rural Michigan campus relates to the growth of a middle class able to select and purchase items like decorative dinnerware for use in their homes. Sometimes a broken is just a broken plate, but with a little bit of context, sometimes a broken plate reveals a (literal) piece of history.













The Great Oyster Craze: Why 19th Century Americans Loved Oysters

In the 1800s, people loved oysters so much they wrote books on them. Courtesy of MSU Special Collections

In the 1800s, people loved oysters so much they wrote books on them. Courtesy of MSU Special Collections

As part of her research on historic campus cuisine, CAP Fellow Susan Kooiman visited the MSU Library’s Special Collections Department to peruse their collection of historic cookbooks. As you can (and should!) read about in her blog post, she came across several interesting recipes while looking through regional cookbooks for dishes popular in the Midwest during the late 19th century. Curiously, every cookbook she encountered seemed to include dozens of oyster recipes: fried oysters, broiled oysters, stewed oysters, escalloped oysters, fricasseed oysters, pickled oysters, oyster croquettes, oyster patties, oyster pie, oyster soup, oyster toast. Nineteenth century Americans apparently ate oysters with beefsteak, oysters stuffed in turkey, oysters with scrambled eggs, even oysters with frog legs and Parmesan cheese. If they could think of a way to prepare oysters, they tried it. By all accounts, during the 1800s America was swept up in the midst of a “great oyster craze” (1).

In this blog post, I address the question you never knew you needed answered: why were 19th century Americans so obsessed with oysters?

Today, oysters are a somewhat divisive subject. Some love them, some hate them, and some refuse to try them. No matter how you feel about them, the fact is that Americans have a long-standing history with oysters. Oyster shells recovered from middens—or trash pits—indicate Native Americans have been eating oysters for almost 9,000 years. In the United States, one of the largest oyster-producing bodies of water is Chesapeake Bay. Reefs of eastern oysters (Crassotrea virginica) once dominated the area so prominently, legend has it that early colonists nearly ran aground on them. When European colonists arrived in the 17th century, they began to harvest oysters from Chesapeake Bay at a voracious pace.

Until the 1800s, wild eastern oysters were typically harvested and eaten locally. Since oysters do not preserve long once out of their shells, oysters harvested from Chesapeake Bay rarely made it further than could be transported in a day. Nineteenth century advancements in food preservation and transportation transformed the oyster industry. Newly built railways connected the coast with inland cities and made it possible to ship oysters further west. Canning technology made its way to the U.S. in the early 1800s. By the 1840s, oyster canning became a booming business in coastal cities such as Baltimore. Canned oysters and fresh oysters packed in ice were shipped inland to Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and other Midwest cities.

Innovations in harvesting allowed for more efficient collection of oysters. Historically, oysters were collected by hand or with special tongs . In the 1800s, however, fishermen began to use dredges, iron mesh bags that were dragged across the ocean floor to collect oysters too deep for tongs. From 1880 to 1910, oysters were harvested in massive quantities. During this time, as much as 160 million pounds of oyster meat was harvested per year. This intensive exploitation did irreparable environmental damage, but it did create an ample supply of oysters.

The fact that oysters were so abundant made them inexpensive, which only boosted their popularity. In 1909, oysters cost half as much as beef per pound. Oysters were used to add bulk to more expensive dishes such as meat pies. They were eaten at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and by rich and poor alike. People even owned special plates for serving and eating oysters, shaped and painted like oyster shells.

Oyster plates for serving oysters. Image Source

Oyster plates for serving oysters. Image Source

Because oysters were cheap, they were often served with alcohol at taverns and saloons. Essentially, oysters in the 19th century were served like burgers and fries today. Every town had its own establishment for serving oysters. Oyster parlors, oyster saloons, oyster lunchrooms, and oyster cellars lined the main streets of cities. These establishments became prominent and fashionable gathering places across the East Coast and Midwest.

The consumption of oysters was immensely trendy during this era. Americans could not get enough of them. As one 19th-century author raved,

“The oyster, when eaten moderately, is, without contradiction, a wholesome food, and one of the greatest delicacies in the world. It contains much nutritive substance, which is very digestive, and produces a peculiar charm and an inexplicable pleasure. After having eaten oysters we feel joyous, light, and agreeable—yes, one might say, fabulously well” (Murray, 1861:13).

We can only speculate on what he means by “inexplicable pleasure” and “fabulously well,” but who could resist such a fervent endorsement?

A page from a historical cookbook compiled in 1890 by St. Paul’s Guild of the Episcopal Church of Lansing, MI. Oyster recipes abounded. Courtesy of MSU Special Collections

A page from a historical cookbook compiled in 1890 by St. Paul’s Guild of the Episcopal Church of Lansing, MI. Oyster recipes abounded. Courtesy of MSU Special Collections

Oysters were so popular and so ubiquitous that they were even eaten by students at MAC. As Susan found while looking through account books, canned oysters were purchased for students on occasion, including oysters and jelly at commencement, and 18 cans of oysters for students’ supper during the Week of Fires in 1871.

So, there we have our answer: 19th century Americans loved oysters because they were trendy, cheap, and readily available for questionable culinary experiments.

But this begs another question—why aren’t oysters as popular today? Whereas New Yorkers in the 1800s ate an average of 600 oysters per year, today Americans eat an average of less than three oysters per year.

One factor affecting oyster popularity is that they are less abundant and more expensive now than they were historically. A combination of overharvesting and disease has depleted once-plentiful Atlantic oyster beds, decreasing the supply. Apart from reduced availability, public perception of oysters has also played a role in the oyster’s decline. At the turn of the century, the public began to take notice of the less-than-sanitary conditions in the oyster industry. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required more stringent regulations for hygienic handling, packing, and shipping of food items. However, conforming to these new regulations raised costs so much that many oyster-packing houses went out of business.

Bad press was another factor. In 1924, typhoid outbreaks in Chicago were tied to oysters exposed to sewage pollution. After this event, demand for oysters fell between 50 and 80% across the country. The 1920s also brought Prohibition, which took its own toll on the oyster industry as the saloons and bars that once sold large quantities of oysters closed. Between the loss of these establishments and various health scares, oysters fell out of fashion and have never fully regained their former status.

As an oyster skeptic, I have mixed feelings about the prospect of oysters regaining the popularity they enjoyed in the 1800s. As for me, the next time I order bar food, I’ll take a bite of my burger and consider myself lucky I’m not slurping oysters between sips of beer.


  1. MacKenzie, Clyde L. History of Oystering in the United States and Canada, Featuring the Eight Greatest Oyster Estuaries. Marine Fisheries Review, 1996. 58(4):1-79.
  2. http://www.chesapeakebay.net/issues/issue/oysters#inline
  3. http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/exhibition/3_5.html
  4. http://www.marinersmuseum.org/sites/micro/cbhf/oyster/mod007.html
  5. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2011/06/01/history-half-shell-intertwined-story-new-york-city-and-its-oysters
  6. http://www.thetowndish.com/2007/09/02/when-oysters-were-king/
  7. Murray, Eustace Clare Grenville. The Oyster: Where, How, and When to Find, Breed, Cook, and Eat It. London, Trubner & Co., 1861.

Wedgwood Ceramics on MSU’s Historic Campus

Last week I spent some time in the CAP lab with Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright resorting and accessioning artifacts from the 2008 and 2009 Saint’s Rest rescue excavation. This excavation uncovered many ceramic artifacts (among other items) including plates, bowls, and serving dishes. Among the many fragments of whiteware, Lisa showed me one fragment that stood out: part of a plate, embossed with a pattern of figs and bearing a Wedgwood maker’s mark.

Wedgewood blue jasperware. Image Source

Wedgewood blue jasperware. Image Source

If you’ve ever found yourself deep in the throes of an Antiques Roadshow binge-watching spiral, chances are you’ve heard of Wedgwood china. Perhaps you’ve seen pieces of Wedgwood’s iconic blue jasperware decorated with Greek figures in white bas-relief. Or, perhaps you’ve seen one of Wedgwood’s Fairyland Lustre Art Nouveau vases, opulently adorned with jewel-toned elves and dragons. Since the founding of the company in 1759, Wedgwood has graced the tables of such dignitaries as Queen Charlotte, consort of King George III, Catherine the Great of Russia, and President Theodore Roosevelt (1). And, as the Saint’s Rest bowl fragment indicates, Wedgwood also graced the tables of MAC. For my blog post, I researched Wedgwood to get a better idea of how a piece of the ceramic dynasty made its way to our campus.

The story of the CAP Wedgwood begins in the 17th century in the rural English county of Staffordshire. The soil in Staffordshire wasn’t much for farming, but the region was rich in clay, salt, lead, and coal – key ingredients for making pottery. The use of coal for fueling kiln fires gave Staffordshire potters an advantage over other rural workshops that still depended on timber for fuel (2). For centuries, Staffordshire was known as a prominent center for pottery production and innovation.

Josiah Wedgewood. Image Source

Josiah Wedgewood. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery (source)

The Wedgwood dynasty began with a Staffordshire potter named Josiah Wedgwood (1). Born into a family of potters, a leg amputation left Josiah unable to work as a “thrower” in his family’s workshop (3). Instead, he developed an interest in experimenting with formulas and design. Wedgwood developed a durable, attractive, cream-colored type of earthenware that gained favor with Queen Charlotte (3). The serving set he made her pleased her so much, Charlotte agreed to allow Wedgwood to call himself the “Queen’s Potter” (1). This celebrity endorsement set Wedgwood’s sales booming.

Over the years, Wedgwood continued to innovate. He developed two new types of stoneware known as Black Basalt and Jasperware (3). Both are known for their matte, biscuit finish. Jasperware was produced in a variety of colors, though light blue was the most iconic. White ornamental appliques were molded separately and baked onto the pottery in emulation of Roman cameo glass vases. In 1773, Wedgwood developed a method of transfer printing enamel (4). This decorative technique reduced inconsistencies, eliminated the need for hand-painting decorations, and gave customers a wider array of customization options (3). Perhaps Wedgwood’s greatest innovation was as a businessman. Wedgwood sold his products via printed catalogs and advance orders (5). Since he knew which pieces his customers wanted, he was able to reduce waste and therefore costs.

So how did we get from the elegant designs of the Staffordshire Potteries to the humble piece of CAP Wedgwood? The answer is in the design: white ironware, to be precise.

Wedgewood plate base with makers mark and RD stamp.

Wedgewood plate base with makers mark and RD stamp.

The ceramic game changed in 1813 when a Staffordshire potter developed a new type of vitreous pottery dubbed “ironstone china” or, sometimes, graniteware (6). In the 19th century, ironstone quickly gained popularity as a cheap, mass-producible alternative to porcelain. It was especially popular in the America. In the 1840’s, undecorated white ironstone headed for America comprised the largest export market for Staffordshire’s potteries.

Wedgewood fig design fragments.

Wedgewood fig design fragments.

In contrast to England, where customers favored elegant designs, American consumers preferred plainer tableware (6). In the 1850’s and 60’s, however, English potteries (including Wedgwood) decided to introduce some whimsy into the American market. Potteries began embossing designs inspired by the American prairies. Stoneware from this era were commonly embossed with grains such as wheat, corn and oats, or fruits such as grapes, peaches, berries, and— like the CAP Wedgwood—figs. Because of its durability and popularity in rural America, this china became known as “farmer’s” or “threshers’” china (6).

So, there we have it. The CAP Wedgwood fragment from Saint’s Rest may have made its way to campus as a piece of thresher’s china. Its durable form and folksy fig design likely appealed to someone living at a rural Michigan college.

In parting, I’d like to leave you with some (non-alternative) facts about Josiah Wedgwood, a fascinating figure in his own right.

Fact 1: We may have Josiah Wedgwood to thank for theory of evolution. Wedgwood was the grandfather of both Charles Darwin and Darwin’s wife, Emma (7). Inheritance from the Wedgwood fortune is often credited for allowing Darwin the leisure time to sail on the S.S. Beagle and formulate his theory of evolution.

Fact 2: Apart from his pioneering efforts in the ceramics industry, Wedgwood was a prominent abolitionist (8). In the late 18th century, he commissioned and paid for a series of iconic cameo medallions that became the emblem for the abolitionist movement. The design depicts a kneeling slave beneath the inscription “Am I not a man and a brother?” The figure is prepared in Wedgwood’s own Black Basalt against a white background. It became fashionable for men and women to wear these medallions, which helped popularize the abolitionist cause.

Anti-slavery medallion (courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of American History)

Anti-slavery medallion (courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of American History)



  1. https://www.wedgwood.co.uk/history/
  2. http://www.thepotteries.org/six_towns/index.htm
  3. http://www.thepotteries.org/potters/wedgwood.htm
  4. http://virtual.parkland.edu/lstelle1/len/archguide/documents/arcguide.htm
  5. http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/quick-history-wedgwoodretrospe-131733
  6. http://www.thepotteries.org/types/ironstone.htm
  7. http://www.thepotteries.org/misc/Darwin.htm
  8. http://www.abolitionseminar.org/the-eighteenth-century-atlantic-world/wedgwoodmedallion/

Investigating Historic Laboratory Glassware at MSU

At Campus Archaeology, we often encounter laboratory glassware in contexts such as the veterinary and botanical laboratories, excavations near lab row, and even the Gunson assemblage. This is not surprising, as MSU has a long history of scientific research. However, the presence of lab glass presents us with some interesting challenges as we attempt to answer questions such as: what kind of equipment is this from? When is it from? What might it have been used for?

Various types of laboratory glass can be seen in this photograph of the Bacteriology laboratory from 1905. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Various types of laboratory glass can be seen in this photograph of the Bacteriology laboratory from 1905. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

In order to begin identifying the large quantities of lab glass in our collections, it helps to understand what forms of glassware exist and what they are used for. Beakers and flasks are used to hold reagents for chemical reactions. Graduated cylinders are used for measuring the volume of samples. Retorts are used for distillation, pipettes for transferring fluids, condensers for cooling hot liquids or vapors, and so on. As we encounter distinctive pieces in our assemblages, we can compare their shapes and sizes to catalogs of laboratory glass to try to identify the type of equipment they came from.

Sometimes, the color or thickness of glass might help us identify its use. Dark brown or amber (actinic) glass might indicate a bottle used for chemical storage. Actinic glass is often used for storage purposes because it blocks ultraviolet and infrared radiation that causes chemical degradation. In contrast, laboratory glass used for experiments is colorless and transparent to allow for viewing of chemical reactions. Very thick, heavy-walled glass may indicate glass used in pressure reactions, while thin, flat glass tends to be used for more delicate objects such as microscope slides.

As I learned in my research, even the type of glass and its place of manufacture can provide some information about an artifact. Ideally, laboratory glass should be resistant to cracking due to thermal stress. When glass is heated or cooled rapidly, the temperature of the external surface changes more quickly than the internal surface. This causes unbalanced expansion of the glass, which can produce cracks. Early 19th century glassmakers addressed this problem by producing thin-walled glassware made of lime glass. Thinning the walls reduced the temperature differential between inner and outer surfaces, limiting the risk of cracks.

At the end of the 19th century, a German chemist named Otto Schott discovered a more elegant solution to the problem of thermal stress. Between 1887 and 1893, Schott and his associates Carl Zeiss and Ernst Abbe developed borosilicate glass, a type of glass composed of silica and boron trioxide that expands very little in the presence of heat. This heat-resistant property quickly made borosilicate, over lime glass, then the industry standard for laboratory glassware. Borosilicate glass was marketed as “Jena glass” after Jena, Germany, where it was developed.

Whitall Tatum & Company bottle from Gunson assemblage. Chemical symbol for KO on bottle body.

Whitall Tatum & Company bottle from Gunson assemblage. Chemical symbol for KO on bottle body.

The United States produced little of its own glassware in the 19th century. By 1902 at least one American company (Whitall Tatum & Co.) was also making borosilicate laboratory glass under the brand name of “Nonsol.” Several Whitall Tatum & Co. bottles with chemical names and formulas were recovered from the Gunson site. However, most American companies struggled to compete with German-made scientific glassware. It wasn’t until World War I when, economically cut off from Europe, America began to produce most of its own laboratory glass. A 1918 Bureau of Standards study of laboratory glassware showed five American brands of borosilicate glass (Macbeth-Evans, Pyrex, Nonsol, Fry, and Libbey) performed as well as German Jena Glass. All six borosilicate glass brands were more resistant to thermal shock than Kavalier, the most popular brand of lime glass.

Archival information on campus purchases of laboratory glassware is often limited. The archives do not always provide specifics about the types of laboratory glass that were being purchased or what they were used for. Sometimes, there are records that glass purchases were made—in the 1897 Minutes of the Meeting of the Board of Trustees, for example, the records show that the veterinarian requested $100 worth of “glassware—test tubes, etc.,” but no other information is provided. Photographs of students and faculty working in various laboratories across campus can provide more direct evidence as to the types of glassware used around campus. A photograph of the bacteriology laboratory in 1905 shows a collection of bell jars, petri dishes, test tubes, glass reagent bottles, a microscope (and, I presume, microscope slides), and a large Erlenmeyer flask. A 1914 photograph of students in the chemistry laboratory shows an array of clear reagent bottles with glass stoppers (some helpfully labeled “Alcohol” and “Acid Acetic”), volumetric flasks, an Erlenmeyer flask, and a graduated cylinder.

Glassware in the chemistry laboratory in 1914. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Glassware in the chemistry laboratory in 1914. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Sometimes we are lucky enough to come across lab glass with makers’ marks. A piece of a flask or beaker with the mark “Schott & Gen” recovered from the Gunson assemblage probably refers to Schott & Genossen, the glass manufacturing company founded by Otto Schott and associates. This tells us that this item was manufactured after 1887, and was probably imported from Germany, likely before World War I when American production of borosilicate glassware became more common.

Recent excavations have provided us with an abundance of laboratory glassware. As we encounter these artifacts in our laboratory, we will continue to use some of the strategies described here to identify them and connect them with activities on campus.



MSU Archives & Historical Collections. UA 1 State Board of Agriculture/Board of Trustee Records. Board of Trustee Meeting Minutes Notes: 1897

Jenson, WB. The Origin of Pyrex. J. Chem. Educ., 2006;83:692-693.

Walker PH and FA Smither. Comparative Tests of Chemical Glassware, Technological Papers of the Bureau of Standards, No. 107, Government Printing Office: Washington, DC, 1918.




Let’s Make Botany Hip Again, Part 2: Experimenting with Experimenting

Beal in the botanical garden. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Beal in the botanical garden. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

In my previous blog post, I discussed Professor Beal’s pioneering hands-on teaching strategies and his efforts in building the College’s first botanical laboratory. As I delved into research about the botanical laboratory and Beal, it became apparent that the lab was not Beal’s only, or most sacred teaching space; during his tenure at Michigan Agricultural College, Beal turned campus itself into an extended laboratory of sorts. This post focuses on Beal’s work in the fields of botany and forestry, and how these contributions changed the landscape of agricultural research and, quite literally, the landscape of this campus.

In researching the botanical laboratory, I discovered a large collection of reports and bulletins on Beal’s work. Academics are all too familiar with the adage “publish or perish,” but at MAC, there were also legal imperatives for professors to publish. As part of the 1861 legislative act transferring control of MAC to the State Board of Agriculture, the College was charged with conducting scientific experiments to promote education and progress in agriculture, and with publishing results in annual reports. These records provide us with a sense of what MAC professors, including Beal, were doing and thinking about during this time.

Much of Beal’s research was inspired by real-world problems. During his first 13 years at MAC, Beal “mingle[d] considerably with the farmers in the interest of horticulture to learn their needs and modes of work and thought.” Drawing on the work of Charles Darwin, Beal experimented with selection and hybridization of various crops to improve their yield and quality. In 1878, Beal cross-pollinated different strains of corn, increasing corn production by 53 percent. Beal corresponded with Darwin himself about this line of study, evidenced by letters in the MSU Archives.

Man excavating a bottle from Beal’s seed vitality experiment. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Man excavating a bottle from Beal’s seed vitality experiment. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

One of the experiments Beal reported, a long-term seed vitality study, would turn out to be his most famous. Just before the first botanical laboratory was built in 1879, Beal buried identical bottles of seeds at a secret location on campus. The goal of the experiment was to retrieve one bottle every five years and test how many sprouted. The last bottle is due for excavation in 2100. It is currently the world’s longest continually monitored scientific study.

Not all of Beal’s ideas were so inspired. One experiment was called “Feeding the leaves of plants with soup” and it was exactly what you’re thinking. In what I can only describe as an attempt to generate carnivorous tomatoes, Beal made a soup from “a quart of water and a hand-sized piece of meat,” then applied the soup daily to the leaves of the tomato plants. Instead of nourishing the plants, as he had predicted, the soup produced dead spots that gave the plants a “sickly appearance.” With an almost tangible shrug, Beal wrote, “Perhaps the soup was too strong; probably the plants do not like food served up in this form.”

Beal’s various research reports make clear that much of his research was conducted outside of the laboratory around campus and in the extensive arboretum and “wild garden” he planted. It appears he conceptualized these campus spaces as extensions of his botanical laboratory and invaluable spaces for experimentation and observation.

Close up map of campus, 1880. U is the botanical laboratory. The trees north of L are the arboretum. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

Close up map of campus, 1880. U is the botanical laboratory. The trees north of L are the arboretum. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

The arboretum began in 1874 as two rows of swamp white oaks near where Mary Mayo and Campbell Halls now stand. By 1880 there were over 275 species of shrubs and trees across two acres of land. Beal often published on his observations in the arboretum, including which species of trees flourished and their rates of growth. Perhaps an even more impressive feat was the wild garden. Planted in 1877, it contained over 700 species of flowering plants. The work of planting, labeling, and maintaining the garden was undertaken almost entirely by students with Beal’s oversight. Specimens from the garden, which was located just outside the first botanical laboratory, were regularly used as materials for Beal’s classes. While the organization of the garden has changed over the years, it is currently the longest continually maintained university garden in the nation and a pleasant place to wander as one escapes the library.

During the period of operation of the first laboratory, the legal push for agricultural research intensified. The Hatch Act of 1887 gave federal funds to state land-grant colleges to establish Agricultural Experimental Stations and required publication on agricultural research. MAC professors received part of their salaries from Experimental Station funds and were expected to devote a third of their time to experiments.

Man in the botanical garden, 1875. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Man in the botanical garden, 1875. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

To put it lightly, Beal was not enamored of the pace of this directive. While he published some experimental results, he often used the platform instead to promote education and conservation. In an 1891 bulletin titled “Why not plant a grove?” he wrote, “These few pages on forestry have not been written to secure the applause of those who see little use for a bulletin unless it contain some new truths brought out by conducting careful experiments.” Instead, Beal expressed his concerns about deforestation, urged farmers and landowners to plant trees, and drew on his own experiences with the arboretum in explaining the best methods of doing this.

Reflecting on my research into Beal’s research, it is clear the first botanical laboratory served as the center of botanical research and education at MAC. However, as I hope I have illuminated in this post, these efforts neither began nor ended with the building itself. From his arrival at MAC to his retirement, Beal claimed campus spaces as sites for teaching and scientific observation. That said, the construction of the second botanical laboratory apparently came as a welcome relief after two years of sharing space in the agricultural laboratory. When its cornerstone was laid on June 22, 1892, Beal held a ceremony at which prayers were read and his wife Jessie sang a hymn. Perhaps it was the prayer, or perhaps it was its construction in brick, but the building still stands today as part of Laboratory Row. 


True, Alfred Charles. A history of agricultural experimentation and research in the United States 1607-1925 including a history of the United States Department of Agriculture. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1937.

History of Beal’s Botanical Garden

 Beal, William J. The Agricultural College of Michigan Bulletin No. 45, Department of Botany and Forestry: Why not plant a grove?

Beal, William J. A Brief Account of the Botanic Garden of the Michigan State Agricultural College, 1882.

MSU Archives & Historical Collections

UA 1 State Board of Agriculture/Board of Trustee Records

  • Board of Trustee Meeting Minutes Notes: 1878
  • Board of Trustee Meeting Minutes Notes: 1879
  • Board of Trustee Meeting Minutes Notes: 1880
  • Michigan Board of Agriculture Department Reports, 1880: Report of the Professor of Botany and Horticulture
  • Report: Michigan State Agricultural College Experiments and Other Work of the Horticultural Department (1880)

Let’s Make Botany Hip Again: Building Beal’s Botanical Laboratory, Part 1

The tragic fate of Michigan Agricultural College’s first Botanical Laboratory is the stuff of campus lore. Built in 1879, it burned to the ground in March of 1890 when a defective flue—and, legend has it, incompetent graduate students—contributed to a fire in the building’s attic. The Campus Archaeology Program has conducted several brief investigations of the site. To provide historical context for past and future excavations, I am combing the MSU Archives for information about the short-lived building. While the story of the first Botanical Laboratory’s fiery demise has claimed its fair share of attention, this blog post incorporates some of my archival research in piecing together its less known origin story.

Photograph of the Botanical Laboratory circa 1885. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Photograph of the Botanical Laboratory circa 1885. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

To understand why the Botanical Laboratory was built, one must understand that William J. Beal wanted people to know he was a cool professor. No, really. In Beal’s seminal 1882 lecture, The New Botany, he distanced himself and his teaching philosophy from the stereotype of the “dried up old fossil” of a botany teacher who “wore odd looking clothes” and “taught the class from the text-book.” Indeed, Beal’s contempt for the outdated teaching style of the “Old Botany” centered on its primary emphasis on book learning. Without specimens for students to observe and handle, Beal lamented, “It is little wonder that botany found so little favor.”

According to Beal, the antidote to the Old Botany’s ineffectual brand of academic stuffiness lay in what he called “The New Botany.” Beal believed a student should “earn his facts.” Influenced by his Harvard undergraduate advisors, zoologist Louis Agassiz and botanist Asa Gray, and drawing on the scientific processes employed by eminent scientists like Charles Darwin, Beal recommended prioritizing the study of objects before books, providing short lectures, and requiring the pupil learn by “thinking, investigating, and experimenting for himself.” With this method, Beal prepared to restore a hipness to the field of Botany not seen since Linnaeus.

Photograph of Beal with botany students in the laboratory 1880-1890. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Photograph of Beal with botany students in the laboratory 1880-1890. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

An educational strategy focused on doing and seeing over reading and memorizing required a bit of creativity, some equipment, and a laboratory space in which to work. Almost as soon as he arrived at MAC, archival documents suggest Beal set his sights on procuring and equipping a botanical laboratory. The laboratory would be the first in the country built for the express purpose of botanical study (Forsyth). A trip to the MSU archives uncovered a stack of letters Beal exchanged with colleagues between 1876 and 1879 seeking advice and support. Beal found a vocal ally in Professor Charles E. Bessey of Iowa Agricultural College. In a letter to Beal dated December 31, 1877, Bessey wrote, “A college which proposes to keep up with the current must provide Botanical and Zoological laboratories. The college which does not provide such laboratories will fall behind the progressive institutions at least so far as the biological sciences are concerned.” Mic drop.

A page from a paper submitted by Frank J. Stahl, one of Beal’s botany students in 1886. The paper includes elaborate illustrations comparing and contrasting cells of white ash, pine, and oak. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

A page from a paper submitted by Frank J. Stahl, one of Beal’s botany students in 1886. The paper includes elaborate illustrations comparing and contrasting cells of white ash, pine, and oak. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

With the support of colleagues at other notable institutions, Beal secured the College’s green light to build his laboratory in 1879. It was built on the bank of the brook, north of the green house, on the same site where an apiary (bee-house) once stood. Watkins & Arnold, a Lansing architectural firm also responsible for Station Terrace and the first Wells Hall, were enlisted to design the building. They chose a “Gothic Revival” style popular on college campuses in the 19th and 20th centuries. The eclectic two-story wood-frame structure sported a large rose window and two towers with decorative finials. The design provided the laboratory a bit of a spooky gingerbread house appearance of which Beal was apparently quite proud. Of the building Beal wrote, “As seen from the west, it is very conspicuous and adds a great deal to the appearance of the grounds.”

Inside, the laboratory was finished handsomely in native wood. The first floor consisted of a study and a large combined laboratory/lecture room, where students had their lessons. The room was equipped with a teacher’s desk, a pump and a sink, three blackboards, three rows of tables, and drawers for each student. Upstairs was the museum, which held an extensive collection of plant specimens.

As with all collegiate activities unrelated to income-generating sports, the budget was a concern. The Board of Trustees grudgingly agreed to pay the contractors, Fuller and Wheeler of Lansing, $6,000 to build the laboratory and install a furnace. This tight budget would eventually prove itself a costly mistake—it was not enough to fireproof the laboratory in brick.

One set of costs involved equipping the laboratory. Beal’s hands-on approach to teaching required hands-on equipment, namely microscopes. This was a truly novel and applied approach to teaching biology. In his first decade at MAC, Beal was one of just four professors in the country to provide compound microscopes for each student in his class. Beal required freshmen students two write two theses a year based in part on microscopic observations of plant specimens. His seniors spent every day of a six-week course using the compound microscope. The students must have enjoyed the microscopes–or at least recognized their value–because in 1890, these were among the few items they managed to save from the fire.

While the laboratory itself met an early end, the applied teaching methods Beal championed and that drove its construction left a lasting legacy at this university. If you liked this blog post, stay tuned because I will continue to discuss Professor Beal, the laboratory, and this legacy in my next post.


Beal, William J. The New Botany, A Lecture on the Best Method of Teaching the Science. Transactions of the Twenty-Ninth Annual Meeting of the Michigan State Teachers’ Association, 2nd ed., rev. Philadelphia: C.H. Marot, 1882.

Beal, William J. “Studying the Sciences Fifty Years Ago.” The Michigan Alumnus Volume XXIII. October 1916-August 1917, pp. 257-259.

Kevin Forsyth http://kevinforsyth.net/ELMI/botany-lab.htm

MSU Archives & Historical Collections

UA 1 State Board of Agriculture/Board of Trustee Records

  • Board of Trustee Meeting Minutes Notes: 1879
  • Board of Trustee Meeting Minutes Notes: 1881
  • Michigan Board of Agriculture Department Reports, 1880: Report of the Professor of Botany and Horticulture

UA.17.4 William J. Beal Papers

  • Letter from C.E. Bessey, December 31, 1877.
  • Lectures and Laboratory Work for Students in the Botanical Laboratory of the Michigan Agricultural College. 1882.


Let Them Eat Paste: Sanford’s Library Paste Jar

While I myself have never experienced the Wiggum-ian urge to consume paste, I’ve encountered an unnamed few who, at one time or another, failed to resist sneaking a sweet, illicit taste of the stuff. In defense of our paste-loving friend Ralph, eating paste isn’t all that different from eating pasta: the basic formula of paste is water, vegetable flour, and starch. In fact, the words “paste” and “pasta” share a common Greek etymology. As used in thirteenth century English, “paste” meant something akin to “dough.” It wasn’t until the fifteenth century that the word “paste” was first used to reference to the glue mixture we know and eat today.

Death from paste! Image source

Death from paste! Image source

This is not to say that paste eating is without hazards. A hand-painted marker in Esmeralda County, Nevada, marks the grave of an unknown man—a “starving vagrant”—who expired in 1908 after eating a jar of library paste foraged from the trash. The paste contained alum, a common additive in adhesives that serves the purpose of 1) preventing mold by keeping excess moisture out and 2) whitening the mixture for improved aesthetics. As our hungry vagrant discovered too late, alum is also toxic in large doses.

The unnamed vagrant may have been tempted by the sweet smell of library paste, but not all historical adhesives were so appetizing. In the past, glue-making and using was often a smelly, messy affair. Prior to the 20th century, many adhesives were derived from animal products including bones, cartilage, skin, or—as I learned traumatically from a childhood reading of Black Beauty—horse hooves. Animal-based adhesives often required cooking or melting before use, at great inconvenience to the user.

Enter: Sanford’s Library Paste.

Sanford's Library Paste Jar discovered at Station Terrace - Image Source: Lisa Bright

Sanford’s Library Paste Jar discovered at Station Terrace – Image Source: Lisa Bright

This summer, an intact jar of Sanford’s Utopian Library Paste was uncovered during the excavation of Station Terrace. As Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright discussed in a previous blog post, Station Terrace was built in the early 1890s and used as housing for visiting researchers and faculty. The discovery of the paste jar begs the question, what place might such an object have on the campus of Michigan Agricultural College?

Sanford's Library Paste Utopian Jar Ad - Image Source

Sanford’s Library Paste Utopian Jar Ad – Image Source

The Sanford Ink Company was founded in 1857 by Frederick W. Redington and William H. Sanford, Jr. Today, Sanford L.P. is one of the largest writing products manufacturers in the world. Its products include PaperMate, Sharpie, and Uni-Ball. In its early days, Sanford was better known for quality ink, paste, and mucilage products. Sanford patented its library paste formula in 1892. The company proudly contrasted its potato-based “clean, sweet smelling” paste with the stinking, cumbersome hoof glues of old in a series of advertisements that ran in magazines such as the American Stationer, The Magazine of Office Equipment, and The Coach during the early twentieth century.

Sanford’s library paste was sold in collapsible tubes and quart or pint jars to meet its customers’ various adhesive needs. Seeking total library paste domination, the Sanford Ink Company patented its special “Utopian” paste jar in 1898. The jar was designed with a small air space under the cover and a central water well that kept the brush and paste from drying inside. It was called “Utopian” presumably because its design beckoned a futuristic paradise in which paste flows freely and brushes stay eternally moist. As a bonus, the paste was “snowy white” and dried quickly—in less than ten seconds—to prevent paper from puckering. Sanford’s library paste became enough an industry standard that it even appeared in the 1906 Report of the Clerk of the House of Representatives’ as part of the contingent fund for stationery.

According to Sanford’s own advertising, its library paste had a variety of office, home, and commercial uses including “mounting photographs, paper flowers, scrap book and general use.” As much as I like to imagine early Spartans dècoupaging paper flowers, the mention of scrapbooking is especially intriguing. The MSU Archives houses an impressive and fascinating collection of student and faculty scrapbooks. Before the advent of social media, scrapbooking served as a means of compiling treasured memories and carefully curating one’s personal identity for posterity.

Scrapbooks contained material evidence of memories such as ticket stubs to football games or social events, newspaper clippings, personal letters, and photographs. These range from the serious—librarian Linda Landon’s cyanotype photograph of herself working in the library in the 1890s—to the personal—Forest Akers’ scrapbook pages commemorating his marriage to Alice Rockwell—to the silly—an unidentified student’s scrapbook page with a 1902 newspaper article detailing the common prank of “room stacking”.

Room Stacking scrapbook image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Room Stacking scrapbook image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Scrapbooks encapsulated students’ unique experiences and perspectives. Chinese student Onn Mann Liang was one of twenty international students who studied at Michigan State College in the 1920s. His scrapbook contains photographs of his travels around Michigan, his registration as a Civil Engineer, and portraits of himself as he wished to remember himself and how he wished to be remembered during his time in Michigan—graduating from MSC, canoeing down the Red Cedar, and posing with other students. Read more about Onn Mann Liang and view his scrapbook in the MSU Archives exhibit on pioneers in international education here.

We may never know exactly what Michigan State students and faculty were doing with library paste—apart from, of course, snacking on it. However, the discovery of this artifact connects us to early Spartans’ methods of self-expression, memory making, and construction of personal identity.


Paste etymology http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=paste&searchmode=none

Paste ingredients http://www.gpb.org/blogs/the-daily-jog/2013/03/19/was-it-ok-to-eat-paste-as-a-child

Sanford Ink bottles http://www.bottlebooks.com/inkcompanyhistory/sanford_ink_company.htm

Sanford Ink Company


Advertisement in The Coach magazine (January 1917, Vol. 4-6)

Advertisement in The Magazine of Office Equipment (March 1917, Vol. 25)

Advertisement in The American Stationer (March 28, 1908)

Annual Report of the 59th Congress, 2nd Session of the House of Representatives (1907)

Sanford Manufacturing Company Pamphlet (year unknown-courtesy of University of Chicago)


Unknown Vagrant http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=24301650&PIpi=9193458

Utopian Jar Ad http://vintage-ads.livejournal.com/6675127.html

Photos from the MSU Archives

 Room Stacking http://onthebanks.msu.edu/Object/1-4-1156/scrapbook-page-about-room-stacking-pranks-1902/

Forest Akers Scrapbook http://onthebanks.msu.edu/Object/1-4-245/h-pages-from-a-forest-akers-scrapbook/