Archaeology and the Age of Plastics: Bakelite in the Brody Dump

Mirror from the Brody/Emmons complex.

Mirror from the Brody/Emmons complex.

Take a moment to think about what kinds of materials you’d expect to find in a garbage dump from 2018. Did plastic immediately spring to mind? About 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year, only about 10% of which is recycled (1). Since mass production of plastic took off around 1950 an estimated 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste has been produced, much of which has ended up in landfills (1). We don’t encounter much plastic at the oldest sites on MSU’s campus. At sites dating to the 19th century, like Saints’ Rest and College Hall, we more frequently find glass, metal, and ceramics. At more recent sites, however, we begin to see more plastic in the archaeological record, reflecting the increased availability and use of plastic in everyday items. Several plastic artifacts were excavated at the Brody-Emmons Complex, the site of the East Lansing city landfill in the early 20th century.

Humans have long used natural substances with plastic properties, such as rubber and shellac, but man-made plastics are a fairly recent innovation. The first man-made plastic is attributed to British chemist Alexander Parkes (2). In 1856, Parkes acquired a patent for a product made from a plant material called cellulose treated with nitric acid and other chemicals. The product, called Parkesine, exhibited many useful properties: when hot it could be easily molded into various shapes, but when cool it was sturdy and durable. Unlike rubber, it could be industrially produced in large quantities (2).

Early plastics such as Parkesine and its successor, celluloid, involved the addition of chemicals to naturally occurring polymers (3). The first fully synthetic plastic wasn’t invented until 1907 when American chemist Leo Baekeland produced a plastic material through a condensation reaction of phenol with formaldehyde. He called his phenolic resin “Bakelite,” polyoxybenzylmethyleneglycoanhydride to the chemistry nerds out there. Unlike celluloid, Bakelite is thermosetting; once molded, it retains its shape even if heated again (3).

Baekeland patented Bakelite in 1909 and formed the General Bakelite Company around 1910 (3). The company adopted the infinity symbol as its logo to match its slogan “a material of a thousand uses.” In fact, Bakelite did prove to have many uses. Due to its resistance to heat and electricity, it was particularly useful in the automotive and electrical industries. The earliest commercial use of Bakelite was in insulating bushings manufactured for the Weston Electrical Instrument Corporation in 1908. During World War I, Bakelite was used in everything from electrical systems to airplane propellers. As plastic began to be incorporated in electronics such as telephones and radios, these products became cheaper and thus more widely accessible (3). There were also many decorative and aesthetic uses for Bakelite. Blocks of Bakelite could be carved to create items like pipe stems, cigarette holders, and even jewelry (3). The look, weight, and sound of Bakelite pieces struck together are similar to ivory (4). For this reason, phenolic resins are still used in items such as billiard balls, dominos, and chess pieces (3).

One of the plastic artifacts associated with the East Lansing landfill is a small hand-held mirror we suspected might be made of Bakelite. People who have handled a lot of Bakelite can make an assessment based on subtle clues like sound and feel. Since I have not handled much of it myself, I turned to some of the other “tests” for Bakelite.

Testing with Formula 409

Testing with Formula 409

First I tried the smell test. This method involves heating the object – either by running it under hot water or rubbing it vigorously–and sniffing. Bakelite gives off a telltale formaldehyde smell (4). As I wanted to avoid damaging the artifact, I tried the rubbing approach. The mirror definitely smelled “weird” to me, but it was too faint for me to discern a specific scent.

Next I decided to try one of the visual methods for testing Bakelite. These methods involve swabbing a Q-Tip or white cloth dampened with certain chemicals against the object in question. If the object is Bakelite, it will turn the Q-tip yellow (4). Other early plastics, such as Lucite, do not produce this result. Chemicals typically used for testing Bakelite are Formula 409 and Simichrome metal polish (4). I couldn’t find Simichrome at my local hardware store, so I opted to try Formula 409. After gently cleaning the mirror to remove any dirt, Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright and I swabbed a Q-Tip sprayed with 409 against the back of the mirror. The Q-Tip turned faintly yellow, which seemed promising. After a bit of research, I discovered that some people have successfully used baking soda to test for Bakelite (5). I decided to try this method too, and added a bit of baking soda to a damp white paper towel. Voila! The paper towel turned yellow where it contacted the plastic. These tests seem to indicate that the mirror is Bakelite, which makes it the second Bakelite artifact identified in the Brody assemblage. A Sengbusch Self-Closing Inkstand with a Bakelite lid was also recovered in 2011.

Testing with baking soda

Testing with baking soda

Bakelite was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society in 1993 (3). As the world’s first synthetic plastic Bakelite is credited with ushering in the Polymer Age, also called the Age of Plastics (3). It is interesting to observe that we can see this landmark—and evidence of the dawn of the Age of Plastics —in the archaeological record of our campus.





An Electrifying Discovery: Early Batteries on MSU’s Campus

While archaeologists are great at identifying artifacts that we recover, we occasionally find objects that are a mystery.  Even on campus, we sometimes find intriguing objects in our excavations that take some investigative work to identify.  One group of objects that has piqued our interest were a number of small black cylinders recovered during the 2015 CAP field school at the late 19th-early 20th century Gunson site.  Ambiguous enough to make finding a function difficult, the current Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright suggested that they might have originally served as carbon rods within batteries.  After doing some research, she appears to be right!

Carbon rods are found in the center of zinc-carbon batteries, today’s basic household battery.  In general, these batteries produce energy through chemical reactions that take place between their component parts.  As these reactions release energy, the centrally placed carbon rod functions as a positive electrode, helping to funnel the released energy into whatever device the battery is powering (Frood 2003; Schumm 2011).  These batteries can come in both flat or cylindrical forms, and can be stacked together to generate even larger electric potential (Schumm 2011).  Based on the shape and the length of the carbon rods recovered by CAP, it is likely that they originated from within cylinder batteries.

Diagram of the interior of a modern zinc-carbon battery, found on the UPS Battery Center blog

Diagram of the interior of a modern zinc-carbon battery, found on the UPS Battery Center blog. Image source

If, like me, you tend to image the late 18th-early 19th century as battery free, they actually have a much deeper history than many realize.  The first batteries that we know of were actually created centuries ago, sometime between 200 B.C. or A.D. 600.  Known as “Baghdad Batteries,” these devices, constructed from metal and liquid components placed in clay jars, were capable of producing a small electric charge, but it is unknown how they would have been used (Frood 2003).  Much later, in 1866, the same concepts were used by Georges-Lionel LeClanche to invent the LeClanche wet cell battery.  Housed in a glass mason jar, this early battery was used to power important technologies like telegraph machines and railroad signals.  In 1888, Carl Gassner improved this model and created the first dry cell battery, which used a solid medium instead of a liquid one.  This improvement made these batteries spill-proof, and are the ancestor of all of our modern batteries today (Schumm 2011).  Both wet and dry cell batteries utilized carbon rods to help channel the battery’s energy, but based on the dates from the Gunson site (late 19th-early 20th century), these rods would have been from dry cell batteries.

Image of an early zinc-carbon battery, produced by the National Carbon Co. at the end of the 19th century.

Image of an early zinc-carbon battery, produced by the National Carbon Co. at the end of the 19th century. Image source

Batteries may have had numerous roles on campus.  Starting in the 1890s, MSU officials were working on initiatives to power many parts of campus through the use of electricity (Meeting Minutes of Offices of Board of Trustees and President 1892, 1894, 1898).  A few departments also requested and received funding to purchase electrical equipment for power sources and experiments.  For example, in 1890 and 1895, the College approved the purchase of a mysterious “electric apparatus” for two different professors (Meeting Minutes of Offices of the Board of Trustees and President 1890, 1895).  In 1898, they also approved the purchase of an electrical motor to power the equipment within the mechanical shops (Meeting Minutes of Offices of the Board of Trustees and President 1898).  Batteries are also occasionally mentioned, as in 1904, when a large storage battery (think like a large car battery) was purchased and installed for the Department of Physics and Electrical Engineering (M.A.C. Record, Dec. 13th, 1904).  Batteries also may have been used to power technologies mentioned earlier, such as communication equipment.

It is hard to know how Gunson, a horticulturalist by trade, would have used these batteries.  While it is likely that he and his family may have used them within their home for some purpose, another clue is found in an 1896 edition of the M.A.C. Record.  Within, there is a small discussion of an experiment conducted by a few men in Chicago, who used electricity produced by an electric engine and then storage batteries attached to a cart to kill weeds along a railroad line (M.A.C, Record, Oct. 20th, 1896).  While the validity of such experiments is called into question by this article, it shows that people in many scientific fields were experimenting with electricity during this time, even horticulturalists and botanists.  As such, some of the batteries we have recovered may have served household functions, but others may have been used in experiments conducted in Gunson’s greenhouse or around the campus grounds.



References Cited

Frood, Arran
2003   “Riddle of ‘Baghdad Batteries.’”  BBC News website.  Accessed Feb. 7th, 2018.

MSU Archives and Historical Collections
1896   M.A.C. Record, October 20th, 1896.

1904   M.A.C. Record, December 13th, 1904.

1890   Meeting Minutes of the Offices of the Board of Trustees and President.

1892   Meeting Minutes of the Offices of the Board of Trustees and President.

1894   Meeting Minutes of the Offices of the Board of Trustees and President.

1895   Meeting Minutes of the Offices of the Board of Trustees and President.

1898   Meeting Minutes of the Offices of the Board of Trustees and President.

Schumm, Brooke Jr.
2011   Zin-Carbon Batteries.  In Linden’s Handbook of Batteries, edited by Thomas B. Reddy and David Linden.  McGraw Hill, Columbus OH.


Beauty Junk(ies): Cosmetics from the East Lansing City Dump

A fun fact for freshmen: if you live in Brody, you might be living in a dump. To be more specific, from the 1920s to the early 1950s, parts of the area now occupied by Brody Complex once served as the site of the City of East Lansing garbage dump. Campus Archaeology investigated a portion of this site during construction near Brody in 2009 and the Emmons Amphitheater in 2011. The large number of artifacts recovered includes everything from food containers to medicines to cleaning products, providing insight into various aspects of East Lansing life during this period.

One category of artifacts that caught my interest includes several cosmetic and hair care products. As a regular makeup user (maybe she got enough sleep, maybe it’s Maybelline) I thought it would be interesting to research these objects and learn about beauty standards and cosmetic use in this era. For this week’s blog post, I focused on three cosmetic items from the Brody/Emmons site that were most likely marketed to and used by women. To provide some historical context for these artifacts, I researched how attitudes toward cosmetics have changed over time, how these attitudes might have affected the availability and forms of cosmetic products, and thought about how this might be reflected in the archaeological record.

In the 18th century, both men and women of the upper class wore makeup (1). Heavy paints and rouges helped to smooth complexions often marred by pockmarks. By the 19th century, however, changing gender norms and beauty standards made it socially unacceptable for men and women to paint their faces (1). For men, the use of cosmetics began to be seen as effeminate (2). For women, conspicuous makeup was considered vulgar due to its association with prostitution. Few cosmetics were commercially manufactured during this time. Instead, cosmetics were mixed at home and applied discreetly to achieve a “natural” look (1). Therefore, we can expect few commercial cosmetics from this era in the archaeological record.

The 20th century brought about another about-face (no pun intended) in attitudes. The influences of Hollywood and flapper culture made it more socially acceptable for women to wear conspicuous makeup (3). By the 1940s, makeup became not just acceptable but a key aspect of feminine identity (3). As women entered the workforce during World War II, bold makeup—particularly lipstick—helped signal femininity and counterbalance the short hairstyles and masculine clothing worn by female workers (1). This era of increased social acceptance, burgeoning production, and conspicuous consumption of cosmetic products frames the context of the Brody/Emmons artifacts and helps us think about how gendered ideals of beauty may have influenced what the people of East Lansing purchased and how they presented themselves.

Makeup compact recovered from Emmons Amphitheater

One of the cosmetic items recovered from the East Lansing dump is a makeup compact case that still contains a white powder puff and the remnants of a pinkish powder. This compact case provides an excellent example of the advent of conspicuous makeup consumption.

Before makeup gained widespread acceptance, cosmetic cases were hidden inside accessories such as walking sticks and jewelry for their owners to access discreetly when outside of the home (4). As it was unacceptable to wear makeup, it was also unacceptable to be seen applying it. Over time, both the use and application of makeup gained social presence and acceptability. Suffragettes of the 1910s applied lipstick in public to shock men (3). Flappers of the 1920s wore heavy makeup and made a show of applying it (3). Beautifully decorated, mirrored compacts became fashionable accessories to be pulled out in public and shown off like cigarette cases or purses (4).

Makeup compact recovered from Emmons Amphitheater

Makeup compact recovered from Emmons Amphitheater

The CAP compact represents such an accessory. Roughly teardrop shaped, made of a silver metal, and decorated on the outside with a geometric line pattern, the compact likely once held a mirror inside the top lid. The compact was refillable, as most compacts were until disposable plastic cases became the norm in the 1960s (5). The user would have filled a thin compartment in the makeup compact with loose powder, compressing it in place with an inner lid that snapped shut. Powder was applied with a thin cotton puff that fit between the mirror and the powder compartment (5).


Pond's cold cream ad from 1946. Image source.

Pond’s cold cream ad from 1946. Image source.

Another cosmetic product in the Brody/Emmons assemblage is a jar of Pond’s cold cream. Cold cream is a product made of an emulsion of wax, oil, and water that for centuries was made in the home (6). Around the turn of the century, commercially produced cold creams became available that boasted longer shelf lives than their homemade counterparts. As makeup use increased in the 20th century, these cold creams were marketed to women as a means of removing powders, lipsticks, rouges, and the rest of the makeup they were sold (6).

CAP’s cold cream jar is made of opaque white milk glass with the brand name, “Pond’s,” embossed on the bottom. The jar looks very similar to images of the product appearing in advertisements from the 1940s and 1950s (6,7). These ad campaigns show how cosmetics were marketed to women as means of attracting men. The slogan “She’s engaged! She’s lovely! She uses Pond’s!” accompanied by pictures of beautiful women and their equally beautiful engagement rings sent the clear message that women needed to use cosmetics to achieve a certain standard of beauty necessary to win husbands.

Pond's cold cream jar recovered from Brody

Pond’s cold cream jar recovered from Brody

The third item I examined from the Brody/Emmons assemblage is a clear, circular, glass perfume bottle decorated with concentric circles and embossed with “DeVilbiss” on its base. The embossing indicates the bottle predates the 1940s, as the company replaced bottle stamping with paper labels in the 1940s (8).

DeVilbiss perfume bottle recovered from Emmons Amphitheater

Like makeup compacts, perfume bottles of this era were refillable, decorative, and intended for display (9). The DeVilbiss name comes not from the perfume itself, but from the manufacturer of the atomizer. Dr. Allen DeVilbiss initially invented an atomizing spray nozzle to deliver throat medicines in 1887. In 1907, the atomizer was introduced to the perfume industry with great success. DeVilbiss Manufacturing Company produced perfume atomizers at its factory in Toledo, Ohio from 1907 to 1968, selling as many as 1.5 million per year during its peak years in the 1920s and 30s (9). Like other cosmetic products, perfume was also marketed with sexual and romantic overtones. Perfumes with names like “Mantrap” and “Irresistible” were marketed as product that increased women’s sexual desirability. Perfume was also marketed as an item that men were supposed to gift women: a 1929 ad for DeVilbiss perfume atomizers reads, “Ask her, she’ll say she wants a perfume spray” (9).

The cosmetic products in the Brody/Emmons trash dump provided an interesting opportunity to explore gendered artifacts and think about how these objects reflect the social norms of the era. If you enjoyed this blog post, my next post will focus on hair care products from the same trash dump that were likely marketed to and used by men. In the meantime, be sure to check out other CAP blog posts on personal grooming items like the beard comb found at the privy site and the nail polish bottle topper from the Gunson trash pit.


  4. Loalbo, S. 2009. Vintage Fashion Accessories. Iola, WI: Krause Publications.
  6. – 1951 ad
  7.–cold-cream-mad-men.jpg – 1940s ads
  9. (ad)

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)




Rock Me Like a Hurricane (Lamp shade): Kerosene Lamps on Campus

Examples of Kerosene Lamps with Hurricane Shade - Image Source

Examples of Kerosene Lamps with Hurricane Shade – Image Source

During the west circle historic privy excavation, 773 fragments of hurricane oil glass lamp shades were found. Lamps that use these shades are characterized by a wick dipped into the fuel source that would have been surrounded by a glass globe. Glass lamps may initially seem like a fairly routine find, which of course they are to an extent. But, consider the role of electricity in your own life. Now, imagine what studying must have been like in a small dorm room with the only light coming from an oil lamp! Clearly the students’ all-nighters would have been interrupted by the tending of the lamps.

Female student in dorm room 1896 - oil lamp can been seen on her dresser. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Female student in dorm room 1896 – oil lamp can been seen on her dresser. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Rule 81 from the 1868 M.A.C. Regulations. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Rule 81 from the 1868 M.A.C. Regulations. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

The rules of the Michigan Agricultural College from 1868 clearly state that, “Filling a lamp with kerosene when it is burning, or in the evening or night is forbidden under penalty of suspension or expulsion.” However, as we know from the presence of clay pipes and alcohol bottles found in campus excavations, students often subverted the rules. I imagine many a lamp was kept burning as students hurriedly tried to get through the material they needed to know for a tough botany or chemistry course. Though the early campus buildings were constructed of mixed materials, the rules regarding lamps were clearly designed to cut down on fire hazards in dorm rooms.

Ancient Roman Oil Lamps, 1st-5th century AD - Image Source

Ancient Roman Oil Lamps, 1st-5th century AD – Image Source

There is archaeological evidence for the use of oil-lamps for thousands of years, while the kerosene-fueled lamp was introduced around 1850 (1). Ancient Romans used lamps made of stone, shell, or ceramics and fueled by the abundantly available olive oil (2-3). Oil lamps appear in Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, and Christian texts, usually referencing lighting some spiritual way or the light as a source of direction (1).

I am sure we are all very grateful for the widely available electricity we enjoy today, but in other rural parts of the world kerosene lamps are still used today where electricity is too expensive or inaccessible. Kerosene as a fuel source rivals even the amount of U.S. jet fuel consumption per year! While kerosene lamps like the ones found on campus consume about 77 billion liters of fuel per year, the U.S. airlines report usage of about 76 billion liters of jet fuel per year (4).

Interestingly, CAP has only found oil lamps at the sites of the historic privy (associated with Saints’ Rest) and the site of Beaumont West which is associated with College Hall. These locations make sense as students would have been occupying these spaces after the sun went down. Recently, the City of Boston Archaeology Program (5) located a complete oil lamp at the bottom of a privy dated to 1835. CAP has had no such luck with finding an intact lamp, which is not unexpected since one careless knock into a table could have sent a lamp flying and glass shattering. We have been able to reconstruct some of the lamp shade fragments, but their presence in the privy associated with the old dormitory lends credence to the idea that the lamps ended up here due to breakage. Perhaps it was all to common for students at Saints Rest to make their trip back to the dorm in the dark, after accidentally breaking a lamp shade, and hiding the evidence down the privy shaft.







If the Shoe Fits: Understanding Changing Fashion Through Footwear

It may seem unusual to dig up a pair of shoes, yet shoes are not totally uncommon on archaeological excavations. Just last week a report from Northumberland, England announced a find of more than 400 shoes discovered at the Roman fort of Vindolanda. Typically the entire shoe is not preserved, rather the leather from the soles or uppers, as well as any metal used for the lace rivets are what preserves. CAP has uncovered parts of shoes several times, including in the West Circle Privy, the Gunson trash pit, and excavations at west Beaumont Tower. However this summer, while working at Station Terrace we encountered a nearly complete pair of shoes near the bottom of the excavation unit.

Shoes from Station Terrace after removal from excavation unit. Photo by Lisa Bright

Shoes from Station Terrace after removal from excavation unit. Photo by Lisa Bright

You can learn a lot about fashion, gender, and even identity from shoes. Sure, you can get technical and talk about the way the shoe was crafted, is the outsole stitched, nailed, cemented, etc. But shoes can also inform us about changing gender perspectives as seen through fashion over time.

Stenciling (brogueing) detail from lace area of the right shoe. Image Source: Lisa Bright

Stenciling (brogueing) detail from lace area of the right shoe. Image Source: Lisa Bright

When the field crew was working to uncover and remove the shoes, they informed me that they had found a pair of women’s shoes. At first glance, it’s easy to see how they came to this conclusion. The pointed toe, the stacked heel, the decorative brogueing, and the loop style ties are typical of women’s shoes today. But these are not women’s shoes, these are a pair of men’s dress shoes. We needed to remember the context and time period of this particular site to properly identify these shoes. Station Terrace was used on campus from the early 1890s until 1924, and men’s fashion, specifically footwear, was very different during this period.   Based on the shape, style, and height/width of the heel these shoes were most likely produced in the the early 1900s (1900-1920).

Closeup of men of Tr'e House circa 1908. Note the different styles of shoes. Photo courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Closeup of men of Tr’e House circa 1908. Note the different styles of shoes. Photo courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Chemistry Class circa 1914. Several different shoe and suit styles are represented. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Chemistry Class circa 1914. Several different shoe and suit styles are represented. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

The history of men’s fashion is often overlooked, or overshadowed by women’s fashion.  Although the changes in mens fashion from the 1890s to the 1920s is not as drastic as changes in women’s fashion, differences do exist.

Group of students pose with frame c. 1895. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Group of students pose with frame c. 1895. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

The Edwardian clothing era (named for England’s Prince Edward VII) was characterized by slight changes to the cuts of jackets, collar styles, and sport and fitness clothing. Men wore lose, plain, suits with wide lapels, called Sack suits (see the above image).  During the Edwardian era the shoes did change considerably from the Victorian era. Men’s shoes fell into three distinct categories; boots, oxfords, and pumps. Boots were designed for every day wear and traveling. They were often two tone, with a dark bottom half and white upper half designed to mimic a shoe spats. The oxford, typically used for business or work, is very similar to men’s dress shoes today.

1912 Sears Catalog ad for men's dress shoes. Note the bows and high heel. Image Source

1912 Sears Catalog ad for men’s dress shoes. Note the bows and high heel. Image Source

Men’s dress shoes are where perhaps the greatest variation from todays style occurs, for they were classified as pumps. Yes, pumps. In the Edwardian era, men’s formal dress shoes look like a hybrid of today’s men’s oxford and a women’s low-heeled flat. Typically they had the same stenciling (broqueing) details of an oxford, a high arch, and a 1-2 inch thick heel. It’s also important to remember that thin string shoelaces weren’t a thing yet. Shoes either buttoned, or were laced with a ½ inch wide silk ribbon and tied in a bow. You can even see these bows in the two historic pictures featured earlier in this post.

Today we may think that a 2 inch heel and bow are feminine, but it’s important to remember that cultural ideals of what is appropriate for a particular gender change through time. In fact, men’s shoes had high heels long before women’s shoes did. (See this article, or if you find yourself in Toronto stop by the Bata shoe museum’s exhibit “Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels”).

The teens marked the end of the Edwardian period (1890-1910). During the teens men’s fashion was heavily influenced by military apparel from WWI.

These shoes provide a unique glimpse into everyday life at Station Terrace.  Although we will never know why these shoes were left behind in the buildings basement, I’m glad they were.


Making Sense of a Little Piece of Leather: Behind the Scenes with the Shoemaker’s Apprentice


Detroit: Stove Capital of the World

Detroit Stove Works, 1883, via ATDetroit

Detroit Stove Works, 1883, via ATDetroit

For most people, Detroit is known as the Motor City.  With the big three companies situated around the city, Detroit is a proud producer of automobiles for customers all over the world.  However, what people don’t know is that cars aren’t the only product that Detroit was once famous for.  Even before the first Model T rolled off the assembly line and on to the city streets, Detroit was known as the “Stove Capital of the World.”  Because of Michigan’s abundance of natural resources, the 19th and 20th century would prove to be an industrious time period for Michigan; the large amount of cast iron stoves produced in Michigan during this time is a clear indication of this.  There were many stove producing companies within the state, but the “big three” included the Detroit Stove Works, Michigan Stove Company, and the Peninsula Stove Company.

So why is this important? As you may already know, the Campus Archaeology staff spent part of this past June at the Saints’ Rest site, digging under the sidewalks and eventually expanding to a trench.  Saint’s Rest was the first dorm to be used on the MSU campus, and it stood between the years 1856 and 1876, until it (sadly) caught on fire and burnt to the ground.  The site was first excavated in 2005 by CAP, and we have continued working on it since then.

This summer, we were thrilled to discover a piece of a (very rusted and burnt) stove door at the Saints’ Rest site.  It’s not very large, and with the large amount of rust on it it’s hard to make out many features.  However, we do know it says “Detroit Mich” on the center of the door, and the number 25 is on the bottom edge.   Because Saints’ Rest burnt down in 1876, we know that the stove had to have been manufactured and used before 1876.  This is interesting, because the Detroit Stove Works wasn’t founded until 1864, and the Michigan Stove Company was founded in 1874.  This probably means that the stove we found on campus was probably one of the first stoves to be made in Michigan for it to have been on campus the day Saints’ Rest burnt down in 1876.

Stove Door found at Saints Rest Rescue Trench 1

Stove Door found at Saints Rest Rescue Trench 1

This is one of the coolest parts about historical archaeology.  We can take written and recorded accounts of what was going on at a certain point in history and compare it to the artifacts we find.  This comparison then helps us to fill in the gaps between what is written and what is found.  The stove door we found is an example of this.  From the writing on the door, we know it was manufactured in Detroit, Michigan.  From there we can figure out that it was probably made from either the Detroit Stove Works company or the Michigan Stove Company.  We also know the stove lived a short life – it was manufactured in the late 1860s to early 1870s, and was then burnt down with the rest of the building it resided in during the Saints’ Rest fire of 1876.  Of course, we’ll never know exactly what “life” this stove led, but from the information we do know, we can figure out the general idea of where it was made, who made it, and what became of it.

Works Cited

“Tales of Michigan” by Constance M. Jerlecki

Inkwells on Campus

Hey everyone, guess who’s back!  Yep, after six weeks of field school in Belize, I’m back in East Lansing, working with Campus Archaeology to unearth the past couple of hundred years of Michigan State University.  While I was away, the rest of the Campus Archaeology team worked hard at different sites on campus, including the area where Morrill Hall used to stand, the construction site at Landon hall and the West Circle sidewalks.  Plenty of the usual nails, ceramic pieces and, of course, dirt were found, but what really interested me was a glass inkwell that was uncovered.

Today, when we need to jot something down on paper, we grab a ballpoint pen or a mechanical pencil.  However, throughout the 1800s and even into the early 1900s, inkwells were the only way one could transfer thought onto paper (except for the typewriter, but that’s a whole different story).  Inkwells were made from an assortment of materials, including shell, pottery, wood, sandstone, porcelain, cast bronze, iron and brass.  Sometimes they were more utilitarian in make, or sometimes they were made with extreme ornamentation, depending on who owned the inkwell.  Those of a more aristocratic standing often had inkwells shaped as animals or other small statues.  Fun fact: inkwells were also often used as paper weights.

Inkwell found on MSU's campus

Inkwell found on MSU’s campus

The inkwell that we found was a simple small one, made from clear glass.  Over the years it has been broken, but we have at least two distinct pieces of it – the base and the top.  What would have sealed the inkwell is missing, but based on pictures of similar inkwells I found online, it is likely that this had a cork top that has gone missing over the years.  At the bottom of the base the glass is embossed with the words “Higgins Brooklyn NY.”  I googled this company to see if I could find out anything more about the bottle, and I learned that this inkwell was most likely manufactured sometime in the early 1900s.  This makes sense, because the university wasn’t founded until 1862, so the inkwell would have to be from sometime after the beginnings of the school and before inkwells were completely replaced by pens.  The plain, simple make of the inkwell is also consistent with universities from that time.  Just as the majority of college students today don’t have a lot of money to spend on extravagant purchases, many students in the late 1800s/early 1900s also didn’t have a lot of money to spend.  They wouldn’t have wasted their money on inkwells that were excessively and colorfully decorated.  Instead, they would have used cheaper inkwells – likely those made of clear glass.  This probably goes for the professors and administrators on campus, too.

While it may seem that an inkwell isn’t a huge or significant find on a college campus, we can still learn information from this artifact.  On the writing utensil timeline, there is an overlap between pens and inkwells.  The first fountain pen was made in the 1880s, but since we know that this inkwell is from the early 1900s, we can discern that students on the MSU campus were still using inkwells even after pens had been invented.  Again, this could be due to a financial reason; perhaps pens were more expensive than inkwells when they were first invented.  Even though all we have of this inkwell are two small pieces, barely six centimeters in diameter, it’s still as valuable to us as any other find would be.

What is that?

Mystery Object, and yes the back of my car is covered with a duck sheet

We’ve found some interesting artifacts on campus, some of which can be a little difficult to identify, and others that are a little bit weird. There are random chunks of metal, bent and rusted until identification is impossible. Old bottles that have lost their labels and have weird embossing that make determining function hard. We’ve even found human hair! Many artifacts we find are more industrial and relating to building construction- items that we don’t run into on a daily basis. Others are things no longer used by our society such as parts of slate pens or inkwells. Usually, with a little bit of cleaning, research into potential artifacts and imagination we can come up with at least an idea of use or function.

I’m totally stumped on this one. This large circular hunk of concrete was given to us by construction workers putting in new steam pipes south of Beaumont Tower. The concrete has a horseshoe embedded in it, that appears to be some type of handle. There’s even a nail still in one of the horseshoe holes. They said it was a sump pump cover, but that doesn’t really make sense. It might be from an old cistern. It is definitely more homemade or make do. The thing is quite heavy show it would be a great cover for something that needed protecting. One suggestion from the department it that its an early version of a kettleball… Not too sure about that one.

Any thoughts?

CAP Typologies

Whiteware Ceramic Sherds

While I’ve been visiting the archives a couple of times a week, looking for information I can use for my research project, I’ve also been down in the CAP lab with Blair, putting together a type collection that can be used for future CAP members, in order to help classify artifacts that have been/will be found. Since I haven’t had much experience thus far in archaeological labs, it’s been interesting to learn what exactly a type collection even is, and to get the opportunity to look at all the collections that Campus Archaeology has obtained since it was first started. During my first visit down to the lab, Katy helped me to understand the difference between the types of ceramics we have (earthenware vs. whiteware vs. stoneware, etc), the difference between the types of nails we have, and ways to classify the types of glass we have. To someone who has had experience in the lab, this may all seem like very trivial stuff, but for someone who had never seen a type collection before, or had gotten to classify artifacts before (namely, me) I had to start somewhere, and learning the basics was definitely necessary. I was given a couple of informational sheets to look over, along with some websites, until the next time I could get back in the lab.

Different types of Nails

As an undergraduate, this work in the lab has really helped me learn some necessary skills that I will continue to use as a graduate student and into my career life. Granted, I’m not necessarily looking to be a historical archaeologist. As of right now, I’m looking into graduate schools that will help me focus on bioarcheaology, specifically in Central America. However, this doesn’t mean that what I’m doing in the CAP lab won’t help me in the future. What a typology is and how it is formed/used is necessary to know for working with artifacts from any time period, not just historical artifacts. Even though bioarcheaology focuses on human skeletons, all archeological fields can be connected in some way or other, and it could definitely be useful to me to someday use what I know about typologies to help with whatever research I happen to be doing. It’s also been nice to get some experience in the lab, just in general. As an archeologist, I will definitely spend much of my future in labs, and learning the dos and don’ts of a lab is obviously important. Not to mention lab experience looks good on graduate school applications, which is definitely something I’m keeping in mind as I get closer to graduation.

As cliché as it sounds, it’s also been a good experience to work with someone else in the lab. Like I said earlier, I wasn’t extremely knowledgeable about type collections, and it’s been nice to work with a graduate student who knows more. Blair has been very enjoyable to work with, and she offers up good suggestions that I otherwise may not have thought of. It’s also been nice to get to know a graduate anthropology student. As a junior, I’m starting to look into graduate schools and what kind of life I will live after I graduate from MSU, and working with not only Blair, but with Katy and some of the other graduate students too, has given me a peek at that.

For an actual summary about what Blair and I have been doing in the lab, take a glance at her blog entry. It’s been a rewarding experience working down there with her, and I have to say, there is really no better way to learn about this great university’s history than actually getting one’s hands on the actual artifacts that tell us so much.