CAP 2017: Week 3

Hot Weather and New finds.

This past week has had the most unbearable weather so far, but overall, the learning process at CAP 2017 Field School is still continuing! Although I probably differ from my peers, I find that the most difficult thing about this project is not dealing with the weather and the environment, but learning new processes, such as mapping, can be the most time-consuming. However, once the process is learned, future applications of that process tends to be done smoothly and more quickly.

As my “squadmate”, Kaleigh Perry, noted in her most recent blog, much of our time at the end of last week and this week has been spent excavating the Field School’s first feature, Fea 1A. We are almost done with that and we will then move onto the next layer. Oh joy! A quick summary of the feature is that it contains a gigantic amount of cultural deposits, such as coal and nails, and the high frequency of roots that pass the feature could indicate that the deposit was filled in slowly and naturally over time.

Knob and Tube Wiring

However, besides talking about the current state of the field school, I also wanted to discuss one of our more notable finds, which was the ceramic tube found in our unit’s first layer. Knob and tube wiring was used in “old school” electrical wiring in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, but more specifically, the tubes were used to pass wires safely though beams, such as wood, to avoid electrical and thermal damage to the surroundings (Myers 2010).

Thomas ceramic insulator from Unit A.

Thomas ceramic insulator from Unit A.

At the digestion of this sweet and tasty (and very simple) knowledge, most people may think, “Cool. You found a nasty old ceramic tube used in outdated electrical wiring.” Although they are partially right, they would be missing the real meat of the knowledge sandwich, which is that you can use the ceramic tube to date an area! Ceramic tubes followed specific styles of their time, and not only that, but they also contained makers’ marks as well, both of which can be cross-referenced to give an idea as to what time period the tube, and potentially, a building, came from (Myers 2010).

And this, right here, what I just told you about dating, is one of the reasons why archaeology and anthropology is so important. Everyday items used by populations in the past can provide us with a massive insight as to what those people were doing and also when they were doing it. Thousands of years into the future, future societies could be able to date areas or buildings by which iteration of an Apple I-phones are in an area. So, the same dating processes that work in the past and present will always stand the passage of time, and will always aid archaeologist in uncovering what shenanigans people in the past were engaged in.

 

References

Adrian Myers. “Telling Time for the Electrified: An Introduction to Porcelain Insulators and the Electrification of the American Home” Society for Historical Archaeology Technical Briefs in Historical Archaeology 5 (2010): 31-42.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/adrianmyers/4

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.

 

References

http://www.collectorsweekly.com/china-and-dinnerware/flow-blue

http://www.myottcollectorsclub.com/inf-flowblue.html

https://hobbylark.com/collecting/FlowBlueHowtoIDandValuetheCollectibleBlueandWhiteAntiqueChina

http://www.collectorsweekly.com/china-and-dinnerware/flow-blue

https://thisdayinpotteryhistory.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/flow-blue/

http://www.thepotteries.org/types/transfer_ware.htm

http://www.collectorsweekly.com/china-and-dinnerware/flow-blue

http://antique-marks.com/flow-blue-porcelain.html

http://spencemeyers.com/arch/counties/knolanal.html

 

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.

Reference:

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

Why all the fuss about the Onondaga Pottery Co.?

As every archaeologist knows for every hour you spend in the field, you can expect to spend 4 hours in the lab. This has proven true for our recent field school excavations. A fruitful 5 week field school this past summer has left us with hours and hours of lab work. Our steadfast team of undergrad volunteers has been chugging along since September and we’ve finally put a dent in the artifact cataloging, yay! Now that we’re beginning to understand our vast array of artifacts, we can start to analyze patterns and research artifact types.

Onondaga Pottery, a.k.a. Syracuse China

Onondaga Pottery, a.k.a. Syracuse China: Gunson Unit D

One of the most common pottery types we found during our excavations of the Gunson site was green striped Onondaga Pottery Company Syracuse China. The company was initially founded as Farrar Pottery 1841, and changed hands a number of times until it became the Onondaga Pottery Company in 1871. Located in Geddes New York, Onondaga was named after Onondaga county, where it was located.

Onondaga Pottery Company quickly built a reputation for having high quality earthenware. Later, their shift to semi-vitreous China made them a nationally renowned pottery company. Their non-crackle guarantee (during this time the glaze on most American made pottery would crack, leaving marks across the product) made them the first pottery company in the US to carry such a warranty.

O.P.Co Makers Mark with date stamp - July 1914. Gunson Unit A

O.P.Co Makers Mark with date stamp – July 1914. Gunson Unit A

In 1884, the Onondaga Pottery Company teamed with Elmer Walter, who had a China decorating factory directly across the street from Onondaga Pottery. Before this partnership Onondaga produced only plain white China. Later, when Elmer’s factory was destroyed by fire, Onondaga hired Elmer and created an in-house pottery decorating department, one of the first of its kind.

Another O.P.CO. makers mark - Gunson Unit A

Another O.P.CO. makers mark – Gunson Unit A

The biggest turn for the company came in 1884 when James Pass became the company’s superintendent. James Pass, the son of Richard Pass the previous superintendent, grew up studying pottery. James studied analytical chemistry at Syracuse University in order to understand and overcome the problems in pottery manufacturing. When James became superintendent he developed America’s first truly vitreous china, known as Syracuse China.

The development of Syracuse China made the Onondaga Company what it is today. The company did not officially change its name until the 1960s, it quickly became known as Syracuse China because of the product’s popularity. The company found an intense market for Syracuse China in places like hotels, restaurants, and railroad companies. Onondaga’s 1896 chip resistant technology only enhanced its popularity in these markets.

Taking the history of the Onondaga Pottery Company a.k. Syracuse China, into consideration it’s easy to understand why we discovered so much of this pottery in the refuse pit on MSU’s campus. This high-quality, durable, china would have been ideal for a college campus. Dinner ware that can hold up to the trauma inflicted by college students and visitors is well worth its weight in gold.  With regards to the Gunson house, it may have served as more everyday serving ware as we also have Onondaga Pottery Company ceramic fragments that are not the three green stripes.  These examples are more delicate and detailed, with embossing and scalloping although we have yet to find a fragment with a date stamp.

 

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syracuse_China

http://syracusethenandnow.org/History/SyracuseChinaHistory.htm

Maker’s Marks from the Gunson Assemblage

My project involves examining where, what company, and the timeframe the different marker’s mark, collecting from the excavation from the Admin/Gunson site, came from. As we wrapped up with Unit A on Monday, I finished taking and collecting pictures of the marker’s mark found from each level. After sorting them out into groups, I came to the conclusion that the majority of the dishware was from K. T. & K Co. (Knowles Taylor & Knowles), Johnson Bros, and the Homer Laughlin China Company. I am still in the processing of determining where and what company the other marker’s marks are from. It’s difficult when only parts of the marker’s mark is present or has been damaged.

Marks & Library has been an excellent resource that I have turned to. They have images of different kinds of maker’s mark and can help with determining the timeframe of which they were used to and from. I have also looked at a few books in the arts and humanities part of MSU main library. They have several books about ceramic, dishware, and marker’s mark.

I think the most different and interesting piece of marker’s mark from Unit A would have to be C. Ahrenfeldt Limoges from level 10. Limoges style porcelain was produced near the city of Limoge, France beginning in the late 18th century and continues to this day. It does not refer to a specific manufacturer, but rather the style of ceramic. This piece appears to have two marker’s mark printed together. C. Ahrenfeldt Limoges comes from the company Charles Ahrenfeldt and the second marker’s mark comes from the company Charles Ahrenfeldt & Son. On the other side includes some flower decoration. This is helpful because having one piece of decoration can help determine what the complete dish would have looked like and can possibly help determine the timeframe of the marker’s mark.

Unit A Level 10 Limoge

Unit A Level 10 Limoge Front view

 

Unit A Level 10 Limoge

Unit A Level 10 Limoge Back View

 

Not all of the marker’s mark has decoration present on the opposite side. Since my project focuses on determining the company and timeframe of the maker’s mark, not having the decoration doesn’t hurt my research but can only help it.

I am very excited to start the next unit. I would like to compare the different marker’s mark from Unit A to the other units to see if there are more fragments of maker’s mark that possibly could be are from the same company but a different timeframe or even a different company.