Hanging Out with Uncle Tommy: Decorated Ceramics from the Gunson Assemblage

Professor Thomas Gunson c. 1910. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Professor Thomas Gunson c. 1910. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

During this semester, I have been working through some of the decorated ceramics that were found in the Gunson assemblage (Find more information about the excavation here). Working toward the goal of generating a better picture of what types of vessels were found and the number of different stylistic types, I have been working on refitting the many decorated sherds that were found in this particular assemblage.  Finally, I am nearing the end and am ready to present some of the results.  But first, a bit of background.

Excavated in the summer of 2015 by a Campus Archaeology field school, this assemblage is one of the largest that CAP has ever excavated.  Thousands of artifacts were found, ranging from ceramics to glassware, building materials, lab equipment, and a number of more personal items.  Dating to the 1890’s thru the 1920’s, this assemblage is likely associated with the home of Thomas Gunson and his family, who lived on campus near this location.  Of the many ceramic sherds recovered, most were plain whitewares, but some were decorated in many ways.  A number of sherds had the thin green bands typical of industrial wares.  Other, more delicate pieces, were plain whitewares with embossed rims or were whiteware or porcelain dishes with various colorful decorative motifs.  For this project, I focused only those sherds with colorful decorative motifs.

Variety of decorated ceramic sherds from Gunson site.

Variety of decorated ceramic sherds from Gunson site.

Between the 100-200 sherds examined for this project, 56 different decorative designs were present.  Few designs were repeated on more than one dish.  While many different designs were represented, they fit into only a few different general categories.  The vast majority of designs consisted of various types of floral patterns, while a few vessels contained geometric motifs, different everyday scenes, or were abstract designs formed by blocks or bands of color.  These different designs were executed in a myriad of colors.  While many were common blue-on-white or grey-on-white color schemes, many were multicolored, including tones of green, pink, yellow, blue, red, orange, or even black.  Many dishes also had gold leaf/gilding present, either composing the entire design or as an accent on the edge of the vessel’s rim.

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

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

Of the many vessels represented in this assemblage, the vast majority were teacups, saucers, small plates, or fragments of serving dishes.  Only a couple of the plates are large enough to be considered dinner plates.  Based on their decorations, sizes, and vessel types, these dishes were clearly meant for entertaining, functioning as serving wares for drinks and light refreshments.  In this context, they also would have been the dishes most likely to be broken.

Early 20th Century Mercer Pottery Co. "Bordeaux" Pattern

Early 20th Century Mercer Pottery Co. “Bordeaux” Pattern

Homer Laughlin Gold Floral Plate. Pattern Name Unknown.

Homer Laughlin Gold Floral Plate. Pattern Name Unknown.

T. Elsmore and Sons, Lily & Vase Pattern Plate. Produced May 14th 1878.

T. Elsmore and Sons, Lily & Vase Pattern Plate. Produced May 14th 1878.


In doing some archival research into Gunson’s background, it became a little clearer as to why his family may have owned and used so many different dishes for entertaining.  Over his nearly 5 decades of service at MSU, Thomas Gunson, or “Uncle Tommy” as students would often call him, was a beloved part of campus life and frequently engaged with students, alumni, and local residents.  According to small articles written about him in the M.A.C. Record, he was an outgoing individual with a flair for fashion and life, enjoying his time with students and others on campus.  He was typically very well dressed, and his family home served as “a cosmopolitan haven for undergraduates and graduates alike” (M.A.C. Record vol. 46, no. 2, 1941).  He was so well liked that he was considered by many to be a campus institution and returning alumni would often seek him out in order to reconnect with one of their favorite faculty members.  As such a gregarious and fashionable man, it is not surprising that his home would be stocked with quality ceramics for entertaining his many visitors, with an emphasis on tea or other drinks that could be served during short social calls.  If only, on a chilly day like this, we could go back in time and join Uncle Tommy for a cup of tea.


MAC Record

1941   “Thomas Gunson, 1858-1940”.  Vol. 46, no. 2, January.


From China to Historic MSU: A Not-so-Short History of Porcelain Part 2

In Part 1, I introduced how porcelain is produced and its long history in Asia and Europe.  Today, after centuries of history, porcelain finally comes to the Americas (what a surprise!).  Porcelain first came to the Americas not long after it made its appearance in Europe in the 17th century.  By the late 1600’s, porcelain became part of the colonial machine, brought over as part of the trans-Atlantic trade by many European powers.  The demand for porcelain, like in Europe, was based in a desire to emulate the rich and powerful of European society.  Especially for colonists, who were often portrayed as unsophisticated, owning porcelain was a way for them to prove that they could afford to maintain a fashionable household.  It also helped to demonstrate that “they had risen beyond their colonial roots to achieve the status of sophisticated, cosmopolitan consumers of the 18th century” (Leath 1999:59).  In colonial Charleston, for example, some wealthy colonists owned as much as £200 sterling or more in porcelain, which is worth over $44,000 today.

By the mid to late 1700’s, Chinese porcelain began to decline in popularity.  By this time, European potters had perfected the production of porcelain and were able to produce it at a lower cost.  They also were able to situate their porcelain within current Western traditions of style and aesthetics, such as the rising neoclassical movement.  As access to porcelain had become more widespread, it also lost its favor with the European aristocracy.  It was no longer a treasure that only the extremely rich could afford, so the aristocracy found new ways to materially establish their social position.  Porcelain was now a sign of the upper middle-class, of those attempting to emulate the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Instead of Chinese porcelain, European porcelain, such as that made by Josiah Wedgwood, became the desired dishware of the day.  Advances made by Wedgwood potters in both refining the materials needed and in mechanizing part of the manufacturing process helped to make Wedgwood ceramics a superior product that could be bought at a more affordable price.  During the 1770’s, while the colonies of North America were on the verge of revolution, potters in Philadelphia also began to make “true” porcelain.  Possibly produced by the short-lived American China Manufactory, porcelain was produced in the Americas in an attempt to become less reliant on imports from Europe.

Original bottle kilns at Wedgwood Etruria workshop in England circa 1952

Original bottle kilns at Wedgwood Etruria workshop in England circa 1952. Image Source

The use of porcelain continued into the post-Civil War Gilded Age, a time of industrialization and major economic growth in the United States.  During this time, the middle class was growing and people had more expendable wealth while, at the same time, certain items became less expensive, leading to consumerism as a method of demonstrating one’s social status.  Not only did the purchase and use of desirable objects demonstrate a person or family’s wealth, but it also provided physical evidence of their skill and taste in the decorative arts, another means by which people judged one’s level of class and sophistication.  While this conspicuous consumption of goods had taken place in the past, it reached rampant levels at this time and major portions of society took part.  Porcelain, both as dining wares and as displayable vases or figurines, played a large role in this social consumerism.

It was during the Gilded Age that MSU had its beginning.  For decades after the founding of the university, full-time faculty members lived on campus in homes built by the university on the north side of campus.  What would become known as Faculty Row originally consisted of 4 houses, but by 1899 it included 12 faculty houses and an apartment building for non-tenured professors.  In the late 1800’s, during the height of the Gilded Age, a number of faculty members lived in these buildings, just a short walk away from the dorms that housed their students.  Given this close proximity and the smaller number of students and faculty at that time, many faculty would entertain students at their home.  The Abbot’s especially entertained a number of students, often hosting regular receptions on Saturday nights and parties for special occasions.  Aside from students, other faculty, staff, and members of the local community also likely attended some of these functions.  Into the early 1900’s, faculty and staff continued to live on campus, both in Faculty Row and in other locations such as the Gunson/Bayha House farther south, but this would change as faculty began slowly moving into East Lansing at around this time.

Faculty Row circa 1874. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Faculty Row circa 1874. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

As faculty were the social entertainers of the campus area and were enmeshed in the middle-class ideals of the Gilded Age, it is no surprise that they followed some tenets of the United States new found consumerism.  While ceramics provided by the university for student use were affordable, undecorated stoneware, the faculty had more refined tastes.  This taste can be seen archaeologically, as porcelain and other elaborately decorated ceramics reach their peak during the time when faculty commonly lived on campus.  These ceramics would have been essential for entertaining within the fashions of the day, and they also helped establish the social class of the faculty.  As I have argued in past blog posts, mealtimes and other events were also believed to be learning opportunities for students, a way to teach them about proper behavior and decorum.  As such, it was important that these events be held in a proper environment stocked with fashionable and tasteful material culture that would guide the students in learning values appropriate for the middle class at that time.

Assorted porcelain from the Gunson site.

Assorted porcelain from the Gunson site.

Porcelain, while it had changed much over the centuries, continued to be a valued item.  From 13th century China all the way to 19th century MSU, porcelain influenced cultures across the globe and became a major part of people’s lives.  From its royal beginnings, porcelain traveled far and became a key aspect of the middle-class American culture that permeated the lives of students at early MSU.




Campus Archaeology Project

2009   “Faculty Row: The Homes of MSU’s Founders” Online Exhibit



Finlay, Robert

2010   The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History.  University of California

Press, Oakland.


Leath, Robert A.

1999   “After the Chinese Taste”: Chinese Export Porcelain and Chinoiserie Design in

Eighteen-Century Charleston.  Historical Archaeology 33(3):48-61.


Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections

1868   Alfred G. Gulley Reminisces.  UA17.107, Box 1140, Folder 7.

1875   R.P. Hayes Papers.   Madison Kuhn Collection, UA17.107, Box 1140, Folder 12.


Mullins, Paul R., and Nigel Jeffries

2002   The Banality of Gilding: Innocuous Materiality and Transatlantic Consumption in the

Gilded Age.  International Journal of Historic Archaeology 16:745-760.


Salisbury, Stephan

2016   “Holy Grail of American Ceramics” Found in Dig at American Revolution Museum.

Online Resource, philly.com.  http://www.philly.com/philly/entertainment/arts/Holy-Grail-



Shulsky, Linda R.

2002   Chinese Porcelain at Old Mobile.  Historical Archaeology 36(1):97-104.

From China to Historic MSU: A Not-So-Short History of Porcelain Part 1

While ceramics from the Early Period of Michigan State were primarily inexpensive, simple, and durable institutional wares, assemblages changed along with the campus.  One of the main changes to take place was the increased number of delicate and stylishly decorated serving dishes, some of them made of porcelain.  Porcelain was a highly sought after ware type that was expensive to buy and considered a status item by many elite of the day.  Its value was based both in its technical prowess and its history.

To make porcelain, it requires relatively pure white-firing clay, ground quartz, and something known as a flux, usually a type of rock composed largely of feldspar.  These three substances are mixed with water and used to form the shape of the vessel.  Once the vessel is ready, it then must be fired to a temperature somewhere between 1280°C and 1400°C, hotter than any other type of ceramic ware.  When fired to this temperature, the feldspar in the flux melts and mixes with other minerals, creating a glassy ceramic body that is hard and translucent.  While this might not sound too hard given our knowledge of modern technology, it is actually quite difficult!  In order to make porcelain, not only did potters have to find the correct combination of materials, but they also had to invent new firing technology that could hold enough heat to correctly fire porcelain.  This required immense knowledge, skill, and trial-and-error, as people who first produced porcelain did not have machines who could characterize raw materials for them, process and purify those materials, regulate the temperature and environment within their kilns, or even paint the intricate designs for them.  Overall, porcelain wares were the most complex and difficult to make vessels during this time and were considered the height of ceramic technology.  For much of their history, access to them was also difficult.

Making porcelain vessels in modern Jingdezhen, China. Image Source

Making porcelain vessels in modern Jingdezhen, China. Image Source

True porcelain was first made by Chinese potters at Jingdezhen in the 13th century.  While proto-porcelain or porcelain-like wares had been made in China for centuries, the characteristic hardness and translucency of true porcelain was developed at that time.  Shortly after its invention, porcelain became a valuable commodity, but like all ceramics, it was difficult to transport over land.  Vessels were sometimes large, always fragile, and when packed together for transport, could weight quite a lot, so porcelain was not a great item for the major over-land transportation routes of this time, such as the Silk Road.  As such, Chinese proto-porcelain and porcelain were not widely traded until maritime trade in the region expanded.

Once maritime trade increased, porcelain became hugely popular in many areas, including Korea, Japan, the Philippines, India, and farther west toward the Middle East.  The trade for Chinese porcelain became so popular in these regions that it had dramatic effects.  In the Philippines, it was quickly incorporated as a prestige item and as an object of cosmological and spiritual importance, so much so that many local potters could not compete, devastating local pottery traditions.  In Korea, potters were able to recreate the process of making porcelain, allowing them to emulate Chinese ceramics.  For the Japanese, porcelain was so valuable a commodity that during an invasion of the Korean Peninsula they targeted Korean pottery workshops in order to capture potters who knew the secret of porcelain-making so that they could begin production for themselves.  Chinese porcelain was also influenced by others, as Chinese potters borrowed the innovations of Persian potters with cobalt to make the blue decorations used on world famous blue-on-white Ming Dynasty porcelain.

Examples of Ming Dynasty Blue-on-white porcelain. Image Source

Examples of Ming Dynasty Blue-on-white porcelain. Image Source

Portuguese traders in the early 16th century were the first to bring Chinese porcelain back to Europe.  At this time, the flow of porcelain to Europe was very slow and most pieces ended up in the hands of the aristocracy.  It was not until the early 17th century, when the Dutch were able to begin importing large amounts of Chinese porcelain in the form of dishes and display objects, that it became a major commodity for a larger portion of European society.  This popularity was aided by a few factors.  First, foodways in Europe were changing at this time, as drinks like tea and coffee became more popular.  Communal dining also was declining in popularity, especially for those who could afford the dishes necessary for individualized dining settings.  Both of these changes necessitated new dishware.  The fact that the first porcelain shipments all ended up in royal and aristocratic hands also helped increase the popularity of porcelain, as it was seen as a great marker of status and wealth, one required for all those wanting to demonstrate that they belonged in elite circles.

Section of The Feast of the Gods (1514) by Italian artists Bellini and Titian showing mythic individuals using imported Chinese porcelain. Image Source

Section of The Feast of the Gods (1514) by Italian artists Bellini and Titian showing mythic individuals using imported Chinese porcelain. Image Source

While porcelain was widely popular with the upper classes in Europe, it was still an expensive import that many could not afford.  For instance, a set of personalized porcelain dishes typical of those desired by the elite cost over 10 times the amount of an ordinary setting.  It is no surprise that shortly after a market for Chinese porcelain was established in Europe, European pottery makers began experimenting with porcelain production.  One of the first pottery workshops to produce European made porcelain was funded by the Medici family in Italy during the late 16th century.  While they were able to produce porcelain, it was a type of “soft-paste” porcelain, which had similar translucent properties but was not as strong as Chinese porcelain, which is considered to be a “hard-paste” ware.  It was not until 1708 in Saxony that a method to make “hard-paste” porcelain in Europe was developed.  A major workshop in Meissen was quickly opened for production and China lost its world monopoly on the production of high-quality porcelain.  While Europeans could now buy locally-made porcelain for their homes, Chinese imports were still highly desired symbols of wealth and status.

Examples of Porcelain dishes produced by Meissen Potters. Image Source

Examples of Porcelain dishes produced by Meissen Potters. Image Source

While I have not yet followed porcelain’s crossing of the Atlantic, it is the history explored here that forms the roots for the meaning and value of porcelain in the early United States.  In Part 2, hitting newsstands soon, porcelain will reach the New World and make its way through time and space to historic MSU, where fine porcelain ceramics met the needs of administrators at a Great Lakes institution.


Finlay, Robert  1998  The Pilgrim Art: The Culture of Porcelain in World History.  Journal of World History 9(2):141-187.

Rice, Prudence M. 1987   Pottery Analysis: A Sourcebook.  The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Shulsky, Linda R. 2002   Chinese Porcelain at Old Mobile.  Historical Archaeology 36(1):97-104.


Aren’t Bowls Just Bowls? Not for the First Students at MSU

As part of my on-going research project for Campus Archaeology, I have been focusing so far on the dinner wares from the early period of the campus (1855-1870).  These dishes, which come in many shapes and sizes, have greatly informed our understanding of meal times and how students dined on a Victorian Era campus, as well as the lessons they learned from such practices.  Like many of you, while I can understand the overall picture of what these meals were like, I have little knowledge of the role individual dishes played.  Until now.  As a prehistoric archaeologist focusing on the function of ceramic vessels, it is only natural that I return to my roots and explore how the dishes that we have recovered on campus functioned within the context of these meals.

As a graduate student who subsists primarily on ramen, pizza, and quesadillas, I own two sizes of plates, and one size of bowl for my meals, alongside one or two larger plates and bowls for serving food.  Suffice it to say that when we stumbled upon archival records of the types of dishes owned by the university in the 1860’s, I had no idea what many of the names represented.  After some digging, I came upon some sources related to the etiquette of table settings.  These provide not only the names of various dishes, but some general descriptions of their shapes and dimensions and how they were used, perfect for young archaeologists ignorant of the finer details of polite society.  While most of these sources are from the mid-twentieth century, a few decades after the height of the Victorian Era, I think it is safe to project these descriptions back in time as etiquette surrounding dinner parties and other such events seems to have changed little during this time gap.

I will now transport you back to MSU’s campus in 1861, where you are a student and I am the steward of the campus boarding hall.  Today, your lesson is on the proper use of dinnerware for entertaining and how certain dishes are to be used (Imagine your own fancy time-travel montage here).

Boarding Hall Inventory April 1861. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Boarding Hall Inventory April 1861. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Dinner Plates- A plate that averages 9.5 inches in diameter, it is the most common dish                 and is used to serve the main course at any meal.  In formal place settings, it                       forms the central focus.

Bread Plates- This smaller plate is used for eating and holding bread and butter.  It is                     meant to isolate bread so that sauces or juices from other food items do not make               the bread saturated and unsatisfactory.  It is typically located to the top left of the                 dinner plate within place settings.

Tea plates- This is a smaller plate, around 7 inches in diameter, that can have multiple                     purposes. It can be used in the absence of a saucer to hold a tea or coffee cup,                 but can also be used to hold bread or dessert items as well.

"Berlin Swirl" Plates recovered from West Circle Privy dating to 1860s.

“Berlin Swirl” Plates recovered from West Circle Privy dating to 1860s.

Soup plates- A larger, shallow dish with an average diameter of around 9 inches and has a wide rim.  One is on average 1.5 inches deep.  In appearances, this dish is like the             combination of a plate and a bowl, and is used to serve thicker, chunkier soups                   and stews that retain heat well and consequently, do not need to be as insulated.

Bowls- Of a similar size and shape to soup plates, bowls are deeper, averaging closer to               2 inches in depth.  These are used to serve creamier, broth-like soups, as well as               some dishes that are eaten with a fork, such as pasta.

Fruit Saucer- These small dishes average around 4 to 6 inches in diameter and are round             1 inch deep, with a narrow yet pronounced rim.  Often used to serve fruit or other               food items with sauces or juices, this dish is meant to keep those juices isolated                 from the other parts of the meal.

Bowls recovered from West Circle Privy and Saints Rest Rescue. Left to right: Floral Design, Davenport Scalloped Decagonal, and Wedgwood Fig. All date to 1850s-1860s.

Bowls recovered from West Circle Privy and Saints Rest Rescue. Left to right: Floral Design, Davenport Scalloped Decagonal, and Wedgwood Fig. All date to 1850s-1860s.

Profile view of bowls.

Profile view of bowls.

Tureen- Larger, kettle-shaped vessels with two handles instead of a spout that come with a ladle.  These are used to serve soups or other liquefied dishes into smaller                       individual vessels such as soup plates, and are often decorative pieces meant to               catch the eye of those dining.

Tea/coffee cups and saucers- small cups averaging around 3 inches in height and                         diameter, which are coupled with small plates with upcurved edges and a small                   well that is perfectly designed to hug the base of the cup.  Saucers average around             6 inches in diameter and 1 inch deep.  Used to serve hot and slightly warm                         beverages, most versions of these vessels owned by MSU are more suited for                   coffee, as they are more cylindrical in order to better hold in the heat of the                           beverage.  Tea cups are often wider with a more flared rim, as tea is typically                       served slightly cooled.

Berlin Swirl handless cup and matching saucer. Recovered from West Circle Privy

Berlin Swirl handless cup and matching saucer. Recovered from West Circle Privy.

While not exhaustive, these descriptions provide clear examples of the functional specialization inherent in these different vessels and in how they were used.  It is no surprise that such dinner sets were a hallmark of the middle and upper classes, as owning a set of dishes, including all the specialized parts, that could feed a family of five or six would require more money than many people could afford at this time.  Such specialization was not limited to plates and bowls either, but also included drinking vessels and the silverware.  Be glad I did not decide to explore the differences between the fish fork, the fruit fork, the dessert fork, and the salad fork!



Biddle, Dorothy, and Dorothea Blom
1936   The Book of Table Setting.  Doubleday, Doran, and Company, Inc., New York.

Goldman, Mary E.
1959   Planning and Serving Your Meals.  McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York.

MSU Archives & Historical Collections: Kuhn Collection Volume 91. Agricultural Boarding         Hall.

Sprackling, Helen
1960   The New Setting Your Table: Its Art, Etiquette, and Service.  M. Barrows and                Company, New York.

Yellowstone Publishing, LLC
2015   Etiquette Scholar: Etiquette Encyclopedia.  Electronic document,

http://www.etiquettescholar.com/index.html, accessed November 30, 2016.

Rim Diameter for President!: An Archaeological Distraction for Your Anxious Election Day

Hopefully, like me, you have already voted today and are awaiting the results.  While we all wait anxiously to hear what the next four years will be like, let me distract you with some good, old fashioned archaeology.  In my last blog post, “Let’s Dine Like it’s 1872!,” I explored archival evidence for a diverse set of college-owned dinner wares within the Saint’s Rest boarding hall, signaling that the college at this time followed the Victorian ideal of mealtime as one of education and conspicuous presentation.  Since that time, we in the Campus Archaeology lab have been classifying and measuring dinner wares from the Early Period (1855-1870) of campus that were recovered through various archaeological excavations.  What we have found matches quite closely with the information seen in the archival documents, but also presents us with aspects that were left out.

"Berlin Swirl" pattern plate. We have this pattern produced by two manufacturers. Photo source: Lisa Bright

“Berlin Swirl” pattern plate. We have this pattern produced by two manufacturers. Photo source: Lisa Bright

For this work, we have been identifying specific vessels, which were then analyzed for a number of characteristics.  While this work is still underway, we do have some preliminary results to share.  During this time, most of the college-owned vessels were white ironstone dishes, which were much cheaper alternatives to the fancier, porcelain dish sets so popular with the upper class.  While these dishes were not colorful, many of them have different embossed designs on the rim, such as the Berlin Swirl pattern, a wheat pattern, or a scalloped decagonal pattern.  A few were plain white dishes with no designs at all.  Many of these dishes have maker’s marks, all coming from pottery manufacturers over in England, such as Davenport, J. and G. Meakin, Liddle Eliot and Sons, and Wedgewood.

"Wheat Pattern" plate produced by J.&G Meakin. Photo source : Lisa Bright

“Wheat Pattern” plate produced by J.&G Meakin. Photo source : Lisa Bright

"Fig Pattern" plate produced by Wedgwood. Image source: Lisa Bright

“Fig Pattern” plate produced by Wedgwood. Photo source: Lisa Bright

Thanks to further archival research done by CAP fellow Autumn Beyer, we can presume that these different designs do not represent different functional sets owned by the college, such as dinner sets, tea sets, or lunch sets, but instead represent different purchasing episodes.  In the purchasing records from MSU in 1862, we have evidence that the college did not buy all of their dishes at one time, but were buying a small number of them each month (MSU Archives: Kuhn Collection Volume 91-Agricultural Boarding Hall).  As the student population grew and as dishes broke, the college needed to acquire more, possibly buying them from different grocers.  This might be why different dish patterns are represented, as different grocers could have had different selections.  The stock of the grocers may also have changed based on the availability of different imported dishes and what was popular for that year, so it may have been difficult for the college to buy replacement dishes that matched their original set.

Small "Scalloped Decagonal" bowl produced by Davenport. Image source: Lisa Bright

Small “Scalloped Decagonal” bowl produced by Davenport. Photo source: Lisa Bright

Rim diameter and vessel height data also provide further evidence that a number of different vessel types and sizes were present.  Among the plates, at least four sizes were represented.  While there is some minor variation due to refitting, incompleteness, and different manufactures, plates tend to group around a 6.5 inch diameter small plate, a 7.5 inch medium plate, a 9.5 inch large plate, and an 11 inch very large plate or small platter.  Two diameters of bowls were present, small bowls that were only 5.5 inches in diameter or smaller and larger bowls with diameters around 9.5 inches.  These bowls also had different depths. Of the large bowls, some had depths of 1.5 inches while others had depths of 2 inches, suggesting that these bowls had different functions.  The small bowls all tended to be shallower, with depths of around 1 inch.  Besides bowls and plates, other dishes represented include saucers, handle-less cups, deep casserole-like dishes, and other serving dishes that were more fragmented and difficult to identify.  While different styles of cups and saucers were represented, all of them tended to be the same shape and size, only differing in their embossed designs.

"Scalloped Decagonal" serving dish. Most likely made by Davenport but no makers mark present. Image source: Lisa Bright

“Scalloped Decagonal” serving dish. Most likely made by Davenport but no makers mark present. Photo source: Lisa Bright

This archaeological data further corroborates the information found in archival documents and demonstrates the power of using these tools in tandem.  When only archival resources were used, it was clear that the college owned a number of dishes of various types that were used as dinner ware, a dining style typical of wealthier Victorian Era families.  What these sources did not make clear was the type of dishes that were used.  Were they expensive porcelain dishes or cheaper ironstone?  Were they plain dishes or decorated with elaborate glazes or painted designs?  Archaeological data, on the other hand, can tell us more about the types of dishes used, how cheaply they could be purchased, and what they looked like, but it cannot inform us about the total amounts of dishes and dish types that were present, or how the college went about procuring these items.  Together, the use of both archival and archaeological information helps to paint a more complete image of what life was like for the first students that attended MSU.  Dining was a much more elaborate affair than it is now, involving the use of numerous specialized dishes that were meant to educate students about proper behavior and to demonstrate their middle-class status.  MSU, despite not having great amounts of money, must have believed this practice to be important for the well-being and education of the students; therefore, they invested hundreds of dollars into buying cheaper versions of these dishes.  Based on the great variety of designs present, the college must have had a difficult time finding dishes that matched when it came time to replace or expand the number of dishes.  Overall, by combining these two types of data, it can allow archaeologists to create a more accurate and life-like vison of the past, one where the anger of those who had to replace broken dishes and could not find the same type of designs can reverberate through history.



MSU Archives & Historical Collections: Kuhn Collection Volume 91. Agricultural boarding hall.

Let’s Dine Like It’s 1872!

Dining as a student is not quite as classy as it used to be.  In today’s fast paced world, many meals for students are enjoyed on the run or in front of the TV, while others take theirs on a tray in a cafeteria full of hundreds of their best friends.  Mealtime is not the important activity it once was, at times even being forgotten or seen as an inconvenience, but it was not always so.  During the beginning years of Michigan State University, campus dining was an event and an integral part of a student’s education.

Students eating at "The Vista at Shaw", Image Source

Students eating at “The Vista at Shaw”, Image Source

At the time of MSU’s founding (1855), dining was a significant social statement in the United States and Europe.  In this time of Victorian ethics and heightened class tensions, the dining room was seen as a “social arena,” a space where an individual could demonstrate one’s level of class, wealth, morality, and even civilization (Williams 1985:22).  Participants were encouraged to act with proper etiquette, or else be seen as less respectful and below the social level of others.  These same rules also applied to the host, who was expected to provide a proper meal in an environment appropriate for the occasion.  If one could not play the proper host, then one was incapable of following the Christian ethic of hospitality and was not fit to be a member of a certain class.

Not only was the dining room a place for display, but it also served as a space for learning.  Family meals and dinner parties were events during which children and other family members could learn about and practice being proper “civilized” adults.  As these spaces could influence the upbringing of young people, dining spaces were supposed to be appropriately decorated as to inspire good character traits, but also be simple enough that the room did not distract from its social function.  This included the table settings.

As order and symmetry were symbolic of a “heightened level of civilization,” coordinated and functionally divided dinnerware sets, including numerous sizes of plate, soup bowls, serving bowls, platters, and tureens, were desired and became a symbol of wealth and the upper class (Williams 1985:78).  Less fortunate members of the community during this time tended to own only a few pieces of dishware, which were used communally by the family, while the richest members of the community may have owned multiple sets of dishes that could be used for different meals and social settings, such as one for family dinners and one for dinner parties, all made from fine porcelain.

Victorian table setting, Image Source

Victorian table setting, Image Source

At MSU, these same concepts held sway.  On the early campus, every boardinghouse, such as Saint’s Rest, had its own kitchen and dining room for feeding its inhabitants.  According to an 1872 inventory of the property owned by the college within Saint’s Rest, this dining room was furnished with a number of tables and chairs, as well as 3 soup pans, 23 water and 23 milk jugs, 27 sugar dishes, 26 pickle dishes, 158 pie plates, 9 large platters, 34 small platters, 141 soup plates, 156 dinner plates, 23 gravy boats, 120 tumblers, 138 saucers, 159 sauce plates, 36 cake plates, fruit and jelly dishes, and other types of dishware.  All of the dishware was valued at over $250, which is a small sum considering how many dishes were owned by the college (MSU Archives: Joseph R. Williams Papers).

While this dishware collection was by no means fancy for the period, as the few ceramics recovered from the Saint’s Rest excavations were granitewares, it does indicate that the same beliefs about dining were found on MSU’s campus during this time.  While they needed to be economical, the founders of MSU must have believed in the social and educational value of the dining performance; therefore, they allocated some of the money granted by the government toward buying a coordinated table set large enough to feed a great number of people.  During dinners at Saint’s Rest, students were assigned specific seats and were served with food using the same functionally divided dinner sets that were used in middle class and wealthy households across the United States.  While students were trained in a number of academic subjects, they also were educated in the same rules of etiquette and dining that ruled the Victorian world, allowing those already accomplished to continue their typical lifestyle at the same time that others less accomplished were trained.  Not only did MSU prepare their students for future careers, but they also prepared them for the social lives that they would inevitably lead.

Dining has never been the same since.  We still learn at our mealtimes, but more often it is about the newest cat video, not how to use different types of forks.



MSU Archives. UA 2.1.7.  Joseph R. Williams Papers, College Inventory 1872.

Williams, Susan

1985   Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts: Dining in Victorian America.  Pantheon       Books, New York.

Institutional Wares: What Are They Good For?

On university campuses, all sorts of different items are present.  One type of item that is commonly found but under-utilized are industrial ceramics.  Also known as hotel wares, hotel china, or restaurant china, these ceramics are designed to be extremely tough and cheap, perfect for enterprises feeding a large number of people every day.  Besides aspects of technology, these seemingly simple objects can provide archaeologists with an impressive amount of information, especially on a university campus with a deep history, such as Michigan State’s.

K.T.&K Bowl from Gunson/Admin Assemblage - Image Source Lisa Bright

K.T.&K Bowl from Gunson/Admin Assemblage – Image Source Lisa Bright

Developed sometime around the 1870’s and 1880’s in the United States, institutional wares are a vitrified and improved white stoneware, meaning that this type of ceramic is fired at a very high temperature, making it more glass-like or porcelain-like.  Despite its glassier nature, these ceramics are extremely durable and do not break easily.  Since they act more like glass, they are also less porous and do not absorb as many tiny food particles or oils, making them ideal for repeated and frequent use.

While some may see the presence of these wares on MSU’s campus as only signaling that, yes indeed, MSU fed lots of people every day, they can actually tell us much more.  Archaeologically, hotel wares contain a number of small but time sensitive aspects, such as the development of a rolled rim in 1896, which can make them useful time markers that are helpful in dating archaeological assemblages found on campus.  Beyond this simple application, they can also help inform us about changes in how students were provisioned on campus, and about the balancing act that is a university economy.

Students on campus have not always been supplied with everything food-related that they would need.  They also did not always live in massive dorms full of hundreds of people.  At the beginning of MSU, when the university was small and hotel wares were only an idea, student labor ruled as a way for the university to remain self-sufficient and also under-budget.  Students also provided many of their own living items as they came to the university.  At what point then, and why, did it become more economical to begin buying these ceramics to provision a growing student body?  This is one question that these ceramics can aid in answering.

Institutional wares can also help us to recreate the student and faculty experience thru time at MSU.  What was meal-time like for these students before giant cafeterias full of different restaurants became the locations for students to eat, socialize, or occasionally do some school work?  For faculty as well, who could afford more refined tastes in dishware, did all faculty have the same access to nicer dinnerware or did some also make use of institutional wares as a way to stay under-budget themselves?

These items also do not remain undecorated, but are instead found with specific designs in specific colors.  After 1908, when a method for decoration was adapted that did not weaken the glaze of these ceramics, institutional wares became increasingly customizable.  This turned them not only into a utensil for eating, but a tool for branding as well.  At MSU, we commonly see white dishes with bands of green near the rim, matching the university colors.  As students would have interacted with these dishes almost every day, this may have been a subtle attempt to unify the student body behind a university brand that was, and still is, symbolized by those colors, green and white.

Onondaga plate fragment with three green stripes - Image Source Lisa Bright

Onondaga plate fragment with three green stripes – Image Source Lisa Bright

All of these are topics that institutional ceramics can help us to explore, topics that are critical for understanding how large institutions, such as a university, evolve through time, and how the experiences of those involved evolved with it.


Meyers, Adrian
2016 The Significance of Hotel-Ware Ceramics in the Twentieth Century” Historical Archaeology Vol. 50 Iss. 2 (2016) p. 110 – 126.