This summer was an eventful one for the Campus Archaeology Program field crew! We monitored construction, conducted several pedestrian and shovel test surveys, excavated one test unit, conducted lab analysis, and helped with the IB STEM archaeology camp and grandparents university. Plus, we uncovered an […]
So far this year, I have been examining the ceramics from various assemblages associated with early Michigan State. While I have looked at what types of dishes were present and how they were used, I have not looked at how these assemblages compare to other […]
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.
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.
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.
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.
1941 “Thomas Gunson, 1858-1940”. Vol. 46, no. 2, January.
Happy Fat Tuesday! After flocking to the nearest paczki-filled bakery, I hope that you sit down and enjoy your Polish donut on some fine china. Perhaps, if you’re historically or archaeologically inclined, you might want to enjoy your treat on a nice British ceramic plate. […]
There are many different ways that we can date a site or specific artifact. We can look broadly at the contextual history of the area, look at how a glass bottle was constructed, or use construction material like nails to create broad date ranges. Specifically […]
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.
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.
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.
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
2010 The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History. University of California
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.
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.
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 […]
Archaeologists care a lot about garbage. We can learn a great deal from looking through what people throw out, how much they throw out, and when they throw it out. Because trash is the byproduct of what humans consume and use in their daily lives, […]
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 […]