The Archaeology of Shopping: Variations in Consumerism in the Past

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 sites in the Midwest.  Comparative analyses are one of the most powerful tools that archaeologists use to learn about the past.  Not only are they great for looking at similarities and differences between sites and people, but they can also be used to look at larger social and economic processes, such as the intersection of class and wealth, that go into the choices made by people.  Here, I will compare the tableware assemblages from historic MSU with those from various contemporary sites in the Midwest as a way to better understand the different choices made in terms of purchasing and the rationale behind them.

At MSU, the majority of the dishes that we find from MSU are inexpensive plain or embossed/molded whitewares and plain or simply decorated industrial wares.  These are typically associated with dorms and student life on campus, and were purchased by the university for everyday student use in dining halls.  Much more elaborate and expensive ceramics, decorated in many patterns and colors, are associated with faculty houses on campus, which were likely purchased by the faculty using their own funds.

Whiteware from West Circle Privy.

Whiteware from West Circle Privy.

Various decorated ceramics from the Gunson assemblage.

Various decorated ceramics from the Gunson assemblage.

Ceramic assemblages are somewhat similar at other sites.  At the Woodhams site, an urban farmstead in Plainwell, MI owned by families of modest means, there were about twice as many undecorated whitewares as decorated whitewares.  While not common, decorated vessels were relatively expensive transfer printed and decalomania dishes (Rotman and Nassaney 1997).  In the former Corktown neighborhood of Detroit, the home of working class immigrant families, people relied heavily on mass-produced whiteware vessels that were cheap and easily accessible through local merchants.  Despite this, some more expensive wares were also present, such as porcelain teaware, English transfer printed dishes, and other imported decorated vessels.  Interestingly, the homes in the area all differed in the types of dishes, wares, and styles that they bought, highlighting the greater selection available to those dwelling in a growing city and consequently the greater ability to differentiate oneself through decorative style (Ryzewski 2015).  At the Clemens farmstead in Darke County, Ohio, the home of wealthy free African Americans, 81% of the tableware were plain whitewares, while the rest of the assemblage was made up of a small number of hand painted or transfer printed vessels.  While this family had enough money to buy expensive dishware, they chose to be conservative with consumer goods while broadcasting their wealth through architecture and improvements to their land (Groover and Wolford 2013).  For those who lived in the Moore-Youse House in Muncie, Indiana, a middle-class family influenced by Victorian ideals and class consciousness, the possession of decorated and expensive tableware was more important.  Out of all of the tableware recovered, most was whiteware and ironstone, and 48% of it was hand painted.  Out of the other decorated vessels, 44% were transfer printed ceramics.  While porcelain was not present, the high number of decorated ceramics suggest that this family spent a considerable amount of money in order to have fashionable tablewares that demonstrated their social class (Groover and Hogue 2014).

Moore-Youse Home Museum, Muncie, IN. Image source.

Moore-Youse Home Museum, Muncie, IN. Image source.

While these different homes are similar to MSU in the types of ceramics that are found, they represent very different choices and needs.  For individuals and families, their decisions in what tablewares to purchase are often based on cost, personal style, and the ways in which they wished to demonstrate their social standing within the Victorian world.  For example, the Clemens family chose to use simple ceramics while improving their home and the grounds, making it one of the few examples of expensive Victorian architecture in the region and a clear statement of their social standing to all who passed by.  At the Moore-Youse house, the family chose to purchase more expensive and fashionable tableware, which would have displayed their standing to those who were invited into the home.  Some of these same concerns are reflected at MSU, such as in the delicate and expensive tablewares sometimes purchased and used by faculty living on campus, but we also must consider the institutional context that is much different than the homes discussed above.  At early MSU, the university needed a large number of dishes to supply their student body, as well as dishes that were durable and would survive abuse by students on a daily basis.  Faculty may have needed more dishware as well, as some of them often entertained groups of students and visitors during the academic year.  On campus, one needed to consider such factors as durability, the economics of supplying and entertaining a lot of people daily, and having dish sets that were similar so as not to alienate certain divisions of the student body.  Both MSU and different homes in the Midwest had access to similar ceramics, but made choices based on different needs, so we must take this into account and interpret ceramics from campus using a different mindset and theoretical base. Only using economic scaling models, as is often done with ceramic assemblages from homes, misses many of the more nuanced aspects of ceramic selection that takes place at an institution such as Michigan State.

Bibliography

Groover, Mark D., and S. Homes Hogue
2014   Reconstructing Nineteenth-Century Midwest Foodways: Ceramic and Zooarchaeological Information from the Moore-Youse House and Huddleston Farmstead. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 39(2):130-144.

Groover, Mark D., and Tyler J. Wolford
2013   The Archaeology of Rural Affluence and Landscape Change at the Clemens Farmstead.

Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage 2(2):131-150.

Rotman, Deborah L, and Michael S. Nassaney

1997   Class, Gender, and the Built Environment: Deriving Social Relations from Cultural Landscapes in Southwest Michigan.  Historical Archaeology 31(2):42-62.

Ryzewski, Krysta
2015   No Home for the “Ordinary Gamut”: A Historical Archaeology of Community Displacement and the Creation of Detroit, City Beautiful.  Journal of Social Archaeology 15(3):408-431.

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.

Bibliography

MAC Record

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

http://onthebanks.msu.edu/Object/1-4-12B8/the-mac-record-vol46-no02-january-1941/

A Closer Look at the Berlin Swirl Ceramic Pattern

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. Enter: the Berlin Swirl pattern.

"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

Here at CAP we’ve encountered the Berlin Swirl pattern in both the West Circle Privy, and the Saint’s Rest trash area.  Lisa Bright has researched the specifics of the Berlin Swirl fragments found in the historic privy on campus. The ceramics found in the privy are all characterized as institutional whiteware. The following is taken from Lisa’s summary of the privy assemblage from the forthcoming West Circle Privy Report:

“The Berlin Swirl pattern is characterized by a series of paired plumes following the rim of the plate, or around the body of cups.  Interestingly there are two different manufacturers of this plate represented; Mayer Brothers & Elliot, Mayer & Elliot, and Liddle Elliot & Son. Although the pattern was produced in a wide variety of  vessel types, the privy only contains dishes of varying size, and handless cups and sauces.  Plates were produced in dimensions from 6” to 10 ½”. The privy contained many ceramic fragments, but many of the ceramics could be reconstructed.  Of those with half or more of the vessel present include: 3 handless cups, 2 saucers (6” diameter), 1 small bowl (5.3” diameter), 1 small plate (6.3” diameter), 1 medium plate (7.5” diameter), and 2 large plates (9.5” diameter).

A Berlin Swirl plate bears a British registered design mark indicating a production date of December 18th, 1856; It was produced by Mayer Brothers & Elliot.  Mayer Brothers & Elliot produced ceramics under that name between 1855-1858.  They changed the name to simply Mayer & Elliot and continued production between 1858-1861.  In 1861 the        name was changed to Liddle Elliot & Son, which produced ceramics from 1862- 1869.  After 1869 the name was once again. This provides a narrow date range of 1855- 1869 for the production of the Berlin Swirl plates recovered from the privy.  There are additional illegible stamps on the base of the plates.”

We’re still in the midst of re-analyzing the ceramics from the trash pit, but it appears that additional Berlin Swirl forms may be present such as the soup tureen or tea set!

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

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

In the late 1800s, Americans were thought to favor “plain white vessels with comparatively unobtrusive molded decoration” (Lawrence and Davies 2010:304). By contrast, countries within the British Empire chose transfer prints with bright colors over the whiteware of their American counterparts (Lawrence and Davies 2010). By the 1840s, the first “Berlin Ironstone” appears under the maker’s mark T.J. & J.Mayer. This article provides a brief history of the progression of this style leading up to the Berlin Swirl pattern found on campus. The embossed style and edging of the Berlin Swirl pattern illustrates the craftsmanship involved in the molding of these pieces. One researcher even hypothesized that the stylistic curvature of the mold, in addition to the tall jugs and posts with paneling, may have been designed by persons involved with some familiarity with architecture.

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

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

The Civil War disrupted the trade of British-manufactured ceramic wares to the American market and Brooks (2005) has hypothesized that the rise in exports of white Berlin Swirl patterns to Australia is a response to the declining American demand. Archaeological excavations in Australia demonstrate that Berlin Swirl is found at various sites during the American Civil War (Lawrence and Davies 2010). The Berlin Swirl pattern is noted in a volume with a title that really says it all, “Good Taste, Fashion, and Luxury: A Genteel Melbourne Family and Their Rubbish” (2014), a detailed review of a wealthy family with a large collection of ceramics. Clearly, the Berlin Swirl was considered desirable enough to make it to the dinner table of a wealthy Australian family. However, the pattern also occurs at sites associated with decidedly lower class families. The Museums Victoria Collections has a wonderful review of the archaeology of the “Little Lon” working class district, a poor mid to late 19th century neighborhood in Melbourne, where many lower income and transient individuals took up residence. Fragments of Berlin Swirl ceramics were found during an excavation in the late 1980s but, interestingly, many of the ceramic pieces feature patterns or designs that are flawed in some way. Perhaps the rejected wares not suitable for sale to the American market were making their way to the working class neighborhoods in Australia.

Liddle Elliot & Sons makers mark from Berlin Swirl Dish - recovered from West Circle Privy

Liddle Elliot & Sons makers mark from Berlin Swirl Dish – recovered from West Circle Privy

The maker’s marks on the bases of the Berlin Swirl fragments in the privy provide tight date ranges for deposition and use. While researching this blog, I was reminded of how powerful maker’s marks are for historical archaeologists, not just in terms of dating but also in thinking about trade relationships around the globe. The Australian examples from both high and low income neighborhoods also remind us that ceramics can speak to aesthetic choice/selection as related to social class. I found it interesting that the working class neighborhoods were incorporating elegant china into their households likely as a result of a decline in the American market due to the Civil War! Archaeological analysis proves, yet again, the interconnectedness of consumer demand for products, status-related items, and increasingly global economies.

 

Works Cited

Brooks, Alasdair. “An archaeological guide to British ceramics in Australia 1788-1901.” (2005).

White Ironstone China Association Inc. White Ironstone Notes Vol 5 Issue 3 – Winter 1998.

Hayes, Sarah. Good Taste, Fashion, Luxury: a genteel Melbourne family and their rubbish. Vol. 5. Sydney University Press, 2014.

Lawrence, Susan, and Peter Davies. An archaeology of Australia since 1788. Springer Science & Business Media, 2010.

http://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/3590

http://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1606241

Where are you registered? Understanding British Registered Design Marks

Liddle Elliot & Sons maker's mark from West Circle Privy.

Liddle Elliot & Sons maker’s mark from West Circle Privy.

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 with ceramics there are several ways to establish a time frame for the artifact including: paste thickness, decoration style, rim construction, colors used, as well as size and shape.  Sometimes we get really lucky, and a ceramic sherd will have a maker’s mark.  Most ceramic companies have well documented records for the changes made to their unique marks, making it relatively simple to establish a date range for most marked ceramics.  But sometimes with 19th century British ceramics we get every more lucky and can establish the specific date the ceramic was produced on.  This occurs when we are fortunate enough to have a British Registered Design mark.

Registered Design Mark on plate from West Circle Privy.

Registered Design Mark on plate from West Circle Privy.

Beginning in 1842 England begin offering “registered designs” for ceramics.  This is akin to a patent or copyright trademark today. The ornamental design act of 1842 expanded design protection into new types of materials, such as ceramics.  This allowed for manufacturers to protect not only the functional design of their products, but also their aesthetic design as well.

Each of these diamond marks contain very specific information that tells us what class of material the object is, the day, month, and year it was produced, and the bundle number.  There are two ways this information can be arranged.  The first configuration was used from 1842-1867.

Labeled registered design mark (1882-1867).

Labeled registered design mark (1882-1867).

There are published tables that identify what each of these letters and numbers mean.  A good example can be seen here, but there are also published books where the same information appears.  Based on those tables we know that the ceramic pictures above was produced December 18th, 1856:

  1. IV = ceramic
  2. L = 1856
  3. A = December
  4. 18 = 18th
  5. We don’t need to worry about the bundle number

If we were in England we could go to the British Archive and view the specific design that corresponds with this information.  However, even without a trip to England, there’s still even more information that this mark can tell us.  By knowing the specific date it was produced, you can look this information up in books, and sometimes figure out who the manufacture was of the ceramic. This is useful if you have a sherd that contains a registered design mark, but not lucky enough to have the maker’s mark.

Registered Designs from 1868-1883. Image Source.

Registered Designs from 1868-1883. Image Source.

The design changed slightly for ceramics produced between 1868-1883. During these years the arrangement of the symbols changed. The year and day marks have switched places, as have the month and bundle.

Post 1883 registered number mark. Image source.

Post 1883 registered number mark. Image source.

In 1884 England switched from the diamond registered date mark to a new registry number system where a numerical mark designated a specific year. Similar to the registered date marks, this information can also be found in published tables. The dates in the tables are the lowest/first number recorded for each year.  So for example let’s look at the registered number in the above image, 49221. This number falls between the 1906 number (471860) and 1907 number (493900) so we know it was produced in 1906.

So sometimes diamonds are not just a girls best friend, they’re an archaeologists best friend.

References:

http://virtual.parkland.edu/lstelle1/len/center_for_social_research/english_registry_marks/ARCH%20GUIDE_ENGLISH%20REGISTRY%20MARKS.html

http://www.phoenixmasonry.org/masonicmuseum/Dating_English_Registry_Marks.htm

http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/registered-designs-1839-1991/

https://www.wilsongunn.com/history/history_designs.html

 

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.

 

 

Bibliography

Campus Archaeology Project

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

http://campusarch.msu.edu/Exhibits/FacultyRowExhibit/FacultyRowExhibit.html

 

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-

of-ceramics-found-in-excavation-at-American-Revolution-Museum.html.

 

Shulsky, Linda R.

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

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)

 

References

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

Let’s Get Trashed! A Comparison of the Saint’s Rest Dorm, Privy, and Trash Pit.

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

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

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, middens and refuse deposits can help us fill in the gaps of our knowledge about the historic campus experience and student behavior.

Campus Archaeology has been involved in excavations of three separate components of life at Saint’s Rest Dorm: the refuse pit from Saint’s Rest, the West Circle privy, and the excavation of the building itself. Several blogs have been written on each of these sites, but no comparison between sites has yet been done.

"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. Recovered from Saints Rest trash pit. Image source: Lisa Bright

This semester, Lisa Bright and I will work on re-cataloging and accessioning artifacts from the 2011 trash pit excavation (with some help from several undergraduate honors students from ANP 203) so that we may get a better sense of what is present (and, interestingly, what is absent). For now, we have some general observations about each site such as abundance of serving dishes in the trash pit, but only dining plates being present in the privy. The trash pit and the privy also contain some of the same ceramic patterns. The location of each site also serves as an interesting variable for comparison. Because the building and trash sites were likely public and at least partially, if not totally, accessible, the artifacts found at each site are expected to be reflective of daily life (e.g. bones from butchered animals, empty food containers, etc.) and human error (e.g. broken plates, bowls, lamps, etc.). In contrast, the assemblage within the privy is potentially reflective of secrecy, prohibition, or mishap. Knowing that no one would retrieve items from a privy, students may have thrown items away in this space (or perhaps dropped them accidentally). Saint’s Rest  burned down in December of 1876.  The accidental destruction of the building also creates a different context for the artifacts compared to the trash pit and the privy.  These items were still in use, and their owners were not, at that time, intending to dispose of them.

Decorated porcelain fragments recovered during 2005 Saints Rest excavation. Image source: Lisa Bright

Decorated porcelain fragments recovered during 2005 Saints Rest excavation. Image source: Lisa Bright

Lisa and I believe that comparing the assemblages from these sites will be useful in piecing together student and faculty behavior as well as use of space on the campus. The opportunity to compare and contrast three sites from the same time period, but with disparate function, allows us to examine some largely intangible aspects of the past. Last semester we finished the privy report, so this semester we will do a quick re-analysis of some the Saint’s Rest materials and dig further into their meaning. Stay tuned for our findings!

 

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!

 

Sources:

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.

 

References:

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.

 

References

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.