An Electrifying Discovery: Early Batteries on MSU’s Campus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



References Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Flow blue plate featuring Oriental motifs. Image from

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

Flow blue factory second. Image from

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.




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

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

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

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

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

Variety of decorated ceramic sherds from Gunson site.

Variety of decorated ceramic sherds from Gunson site.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homer Laughlin Gold Floral Plate. Pattern Name Unknown.

Homer Laughlin Gold Floral Plate. Pattern Name Unknown.

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

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


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


MAC Record

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

Investigating Historic Laboratory Glassware at MSU

At Campus Archaeology, we often encounter laboratory glassware in contexts such as the veterinary and botanical laboratories, excavations near lab row, and even the Gunson assemblage. This is not surprising, as MSU has a long history of scientific research. However, the presence of lab glass presents us with some interesting challenges as we attempt to answer questions such as: what kind of equipment is this from? When is it from? What might it have been used for?

Various types of laboratory glass can be seen in this photograph of the Bacteriology laboratory from 1905. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Various types of laboratory glass can be seen in this photograph of the Bacteriology laboratory from 1905. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

In order to begin identifying the large quantities of lab glass in our collections, it helps to understand what forms of glassware exist and what they are used for. Beakers and flasks are used to hold reagents for chemical reactions. Graduated cylinders are used for measuring the volume of samples. Retorts are used for distillation, pipettes for transferring fluids, condensers for cooling hot liquids or vapors, and so on. As we encounter distinctive pieces in our assemblages, we can compare their shapes and sizes to catalogs of laboratory glass to try to identify the type of equipment they came from.

Sometimes, the color or thickness of glass might help us identify its use. Dark brown or amber (actinic) glass might indicate a bottle used for chemical storage. Actinic glass is often used for storage purposes because it blocks ultraviolet and infrared radiation that causes chemical degradation. In contrast, laboratory glass used for experiments is colorless and transparent to allow for viewing of chemical reactions. Very thick, heavy-walled glass may indicate glass used in pressure reactions, while thin, flat glass tends to be used for more delicate objects such as microscope slides.

As I learned in my research, even the type of glass and its place of manufacture can provide some information about an artifact. Ideally, laboratory glass should be resistant to cracking due to thermal stress. When glass is heated or cooled rapidly, the temperature of the external surface changes more quickly than the internal surface. This causes unbalanced expansion of the glass, which can produce cracks. Early 19th century glassmakers addressed this problem by producing thin-walled glassware made of lime glass. Thinning the walls reduced the temperature differential between inner and outer surfaces, limiting the risk of cracks.

At the end of the 19th century, a German chemist named Otto Schott discovered a more elegant solution to the problem of thermal stress. Between 1887 and 1893, Schott and his associates Carl Zeiss and Ernst Abbe developed borosilicate glass, a type of glass composed of silica and boron trioxide that expands very little in the presence of heat. This heat-resistant property quickly made borosilicate, over lime glass, then the industry standard for laboratory glassware. Borosilicate glass was marketed as “Jena glass” after Jena, Germany, where it was developed.

Whitall Tatum & Company bottle from Gunson assemblage. Chemical symbol for KO on bottle body.

Whitall Tatum & Company bottle from Gunson assemblage. Chemical symbol for KO on bottle body.

The United States produced little of its own glassware in the 19th century. By 1902 at least one American company (Whitall Tatum & Co.) was also making borosilicate laboratory glass under the brand name of “Nonsol.” Several Whitall Tatum & Co. bottles with chemical names and formulas were recovered from the Gunson site. However, most American companies struggled to compete with German-made scientific glassware. It wasn’t until World War I when, economically cut off from Europe, America began to produce most of its own laboratory glass. A 1918 Bureau of Standards study of laboratory glassware showed five American brands of borosilicate glass (Macbeth-Evans, Pyrex, Nonsol, Fry, and Libbey) performed as well as German Jena Glass. All six borosilicate glass brands were more resistant to thermal shock than Kavalier, the most popular brand of lime glass.

Archival information on campus purchases of laboratory glassware is often limited. The archives do not always provide specifics about the types of laboratory glass that were being purchased or what they were used for. Sometimes, there are records that glass purchases were made—in the 1897 Minutes of the Meeting of the Board of Trustees, for example, the records show that the veterinarian requested $100 worth of “glassware—test tubes, etc.,” but no other information is provided. Photographs of students and faculty working in various laboratories across campus can provide more direct evidence as to the types of glassware used around campus. A photograph of the bacteriology laboratory in 1905 shows a collection of bell jars, petri dishes, test tubes, glass reagent bottles, a microscope (and, I presume, microscope slides), and a large Erlenmeyer flask. A 1914 photograph of students in the chemistry laboratory shows an array of clear reagent bottles with glass stoppers (some helpfully labeled “Alcohol” and “Acid Acetic”), volumetric flasks, an Erlenmeyer flask, and a graduated cylinder.

Glassware in the chemistry laboratory in 1914. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Glassware in the chemistry laboratory in 1914. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Sometimes we are lucky enough to come across lab glass with makers’ marks. A piece of a flask or beaker with the mark “Schott & Gen” recovered from the Gunson assemblage probably refers to Schott & Genossen, the glass manufacturing company founded by Otto Schott and associates. This tells us that this item was manufactured after 1887, and was probably imported from Germany, likely before World War I when American production of borosilicate glassware became more common.

Recent excavations have provided us with an abundance of laboratory glassware. As we encounter these artifacts in our laboratory, we will continue to use some of the strategies described here to identify them and connect them with activities on campus.



MSU Archives & Historical Collections. UA 1 State Board of Agriculture/Board of Trustee Records. Board of Trustee Meeting Minutes Notes: 1897

Jenson, WB. The Origin of Pyrex. J. Chem. Educ., 2006;83:692-693.

Walker PH and FA Smither. Comparative Tests of Chemical Glassware, Technological Papers of the Bureau of Standards, No. 107, Government Printing Office: Washington, DC, 1918.

Institutional Wares: What Are They Good For?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Gunson’s Glowing Glass: History and Archaeology of Uranium Glass

Over the summer, we found some yellow-green bumpy glass within the Gunson collection. It was a unique color that didn’t fit with the normal range of aqua, clear, green and brown glass, and appeared to be in a form that was nicer- like a vase or drinking glass. It also had an odd raised pattern that we hadn’t seen before.


Our vaseline glass in normal light

That’s when we pulled out the black light and discovered it glowed! We had found our first sample of Uranium Glass on campus.

Our vaseline glass under black light

Our vaseline glass under black light

Uranium glass, also known as vaseline glass due to its color, is glass that has uranium added to the mixture during the molten period when color is added. The amount of uranium can range from 2-20%, and can vary in color from yellow to yellow green or even avocado coloring. Due to the presence of uranium oxide in the glass, the glass will glow a bright green color when put under a black light- this is the best way to identify it. While uranium is radioactive, it isn’t actually bad to drink or enjoy food in the glassware that uses this. The amounts that leach out of the glass is so tiny, that it won’t have an effect on you.

Vaseline glass became popular during the mid-19th century, and was at its height of popularity from the 1880s to 1920s. Uranium oxide was first used as a coloring agent in the 1830s, and spread throughout Europe during the 1840s. It was produced by a variety of companies, who specialized in different tones of greens and yellows. Each company had unique names for their specific color of uranium glass, including citron, jasmine, golden green, mustard, Florentine and more. During the Depression, iron oxide was added to the glass to increase its green glow- although antique collecting purists argue that this shouldn’t be included in true uranium glass collections. The glass was formed into a variety of decorative and practical dinnerware pieces including cups, bowls, plates, vases, figurines, paperweights and more.

In 1943, production of vaseline glass was stopped due to the implementation of heavy regulations on the use of uranium. It wasn’t until 1958 that uranium was deregulated and the production of vaseline glass resumed, this time using depleted uranium instead of the natural radioactive version.

Vaseline hobnail glass bowl - our fragment is likely from the base. Image Source

Vaseline hobnail glass bowl – our fragment is likely from the base. Image Source

At the Gunson/Admin site, our uranium glass included a piece of golden green hobnail glass. Hobnail glass is a specific pattern of decoration where bumps of glass are added to the exterior or interior of the glass to produce a raised pattern. While these were most popular during the 1940s and 1950s, they came into production during the Victorian period. Our uranium glass is a unique piece of history, and is just plain cool. The glowing glass is something that today we may view as strange- who would ever want to drink out of a glass colored with a radioactive material- but in the past was a unique collectible. You can still find examples of uranium glass today in antique shops, but buyer beware. There are fake vaseline glass products that have the neon green coloring but do not glow under a black light. Unless it glows, it isn’t real uranium glass!


Antique Vaseline Glass. Collector’s Weekly.

These People Love to Collect Radioactive Glass. Are They Nuts? Collector’s Weekly.

Uranium Glass. Wikipedia.

Medicinal Bottles – Early 20th Century Cures

The undergraduate volunteers and I are slowly but surely cataloging our way through the Gunson Assemblage. So far we’ve finished Unit A, and are about 75% complete on Unit D. Over the past few months we’ve discussed many of the fun and interesting items we’ve discovered such as the PH Kling beer bottles, canning jars , Dr. Jay Parker Pray nail polish bottle stopper , and souvenir glass to name a few. During our time in the lab I’ve also noted a large amount of medicine bottles.

1890's Poison Bottle - Image Source

1890’s Poison Bottle – Image Source

Medicinal bottles are some of the largest and most diverse group of bottles produced during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Just take a look at the wide variety presented in the SHA medicinal bottle guide . Today medicine containers are largely standardized, due in part to specific FDA packaging rules.   However, historically medicine bottles came in an amazing array of shapes and sizes. The large glass manufacturing companies, such as the Illinois Glass Company, produced these bottles as standard blanks that pharmaceutical stores/companies could apply paper label to. Bottles were also produced with the Druggists name and product information directly embossed on the bottle. There are several of these different types of bottles present in the Gunson collection.

Parke-Davis & Co Medicine Bottle No. 592 - Gunson Unit D

Parke-Davis & Co Medicine Bottle No. 592 – Gunson Unit D

One clear glass oval bottle base fragment is embossed with “P. D. & CO. 592”.  This style of prescription bottle, known as the Philadelphia Oval, was most commonly produced between the mid 1870s and the early 1910’s. The makers mark, P.D. & Co., is from Parke Davis & Company of Detroit Michigan. The company formally adopted that name in 1871, and they were once the world’s largest pharmaceutical company. They are also credited with building the first modern pharmaceutical lab that developed highly controlled methods for performing medical clinical trials.

Parke-Davis Manufacturing Plant, female employees packaging ampules and pills. Image source

Parke-Davis Manufacturing Plant, female employees packaging ampules and pills. Image source

Parke-Davis moved its facilities to its location along the Detroit River in the 1870s, taking advantage of the ample and easy transportation provided by the Detroit River and nearby rail lines. They eventually built 26 buildings (that are still standing in that area!). The area as a whole is now known as the Stroh River place, and the entire area is recognized on the national register of historic places, but the main research laboratory is individually recognized as a national historic landmark. The main research building was constructed in 1902 after Parke-Davis relocated the Detroit Boat Club to Belle Isle. The company was purchased in 1970, but still exists within the larger Pfizer Corporation. The Parke-Davis company is connected with some of the most substantial pharmaceutical develops of the 20th century, including distributing the first cancer vaccine, first bacterial vaccine, the Salk polio vaccine, as well as the creation of PCP and other drugs. I can’t be sure exactly what was in our Parke-Davis bottle, even with the 592 stamp without having a more precise date for the bottle. Although the company numbered each of their products, over their history it appears that the numbers were sometimes changed or re-used. The 1894 product catalog lists 592 as Scillitoxin, a rare drug that was used as a cardiac sedative, but a 1918 catalog lists product 592 as only being available in Canada and Britain without listing what the specific product is (other than a fluid extract).

Robinson's Drug Store Bottle - Gunson Unit A

Robinson’s Drug Store Bottle – Gunson Unit A

There is also an intact rectangular bottle embossed “Robinson’s Drug Store, 102 Washington Ave, Lansing Mich”. These rectangular druggist bottles were most common between the late 1870s and the 1920s.  I haven’t been able to locate much information about this store, but city directories indicate that it operated from at least the early 1900s until the 1920s, possibly longer. There is a payment note from the university to Robinson Drugs in the 1903 board meeting minutes, as well as an advertisement in the May 19th, 1908 M.A.C. Record.

Washginton Avenue 1920's. Robinson's Drug Store second building from left to right. Image Source

Washginton Avenue, Lansing Mi mid to late 1920’s. Robinson’s Drug Store second building from left to right. Image Source

Another bottle base fragment, marked with an H inside a triangle, has been attributed to J.T. & A. Hamilton. This mark was used on medicine as well as milk bottles produced between 1900 and the mid 1930s. We have also identified many other homeopathic vials/bottles that are not attributable to a particular manufacturer/distributor. These small containers had the medicinal product dispensed in small amounts for the patient to consume or use.

Although it may be tempting to infer something about the health of the Gunson’s (although there is archival evidence that Annie Gunson, Professor Gunson’s first wife battled a long illness), the presence of this quantity of medicinal bottles is not surprising. To put it in perspective, imagine how many medicine bottles/boxes/containers are currently in your home right now! Because these containers were glass, there is also the possibility that they were reused for a longer period of time (but keep in mind that historically glass was considered a more disposal object than we tend to think of it today). Hopefully as we continue our way through the artifacts from the summer field school, we are able to better understand not only the Gunsons, but also early 20th century life at MSU.


Two Bottles of Beer in the Ground: The MSU Connection to PH Kling and the Brewing Barons of Detroit

PH Kling Brewery Bottle Fragment - Gunson Unit D

PH Kling Brewery Bottle Fragment – Gunson Unit D

This past week, Lisa, the Campus Archaeologist, discovered fragment of two different beer bottles in the assemblage excavated from the remains of Professor Thomas Gunson’s household. The embossed words “PH Kling” appear on both fragments, although in different fonts, and an internet search quickly brought up references to the Philip Kling Brewing Company in Detroit. Fortunately for me, Peter Blum wrote a lovely book about the history of brewing in Detroit, in which the Kling company features prominently. I summarize that information here, but I would encourage those of you interested in the topic to give it a read (citation below).

Original Phillip Kling Brewery Building: Image Source

Original Phillip Kling Brewery Building: Image Source

Brewing began in the city of Detroit around 1830, where the industry was run by mostly British entrepreneurs making ale. Beginning around 1848, a large influx of Germans into the area brought with it a new era of brewing in the Detroit—one dominated by German lager brewers. Among these German brewers was Philip Kling, a cooper, who along with Michael Martz and Henry Weber, invested in the Peninsular Brewing Company in 1856, which was located on Jefferson Avenue, near the future site of the Belle Isle bridge. Kling gradually took greater control of the company, which was renamed Philip Kling and Company in 1868. Kling became the first president of the Detroit Brewer’s Association and by the end of the 1870s, PH Kling was one of the city’s most successful and prominent breweries. Their offerings included Pilsener, Gold Seal Export, Extra Pale Ale, and Porter.

Post-1893 Philip Kling Brewery with new and expanded brewhouse: Image Source

Post-1893 Philip Kling Brewery with new and expanded brewhouse: Image Source

After reverting to the name Peninsular Brewing from 1879 to 1890, the name Philip Kling Brewing Company was formally adopted. This year also marked the beginning of the great brewing dynasties, which in Detroit included the Strohs, Klings, Martzes, and Darmstaetters. However, Kling was but a middling competitor amongst the giants. The brewery was severely damaged in a fire in 1893, and a new 6-story brewhouse with increased barrel storage was constructed. After Philip’s death in 1910, his son Kurt took over operations, but business was interrupted by Prohibition in Michigan, which began in 1917. Like other breweries, the company replaced the word “brewing” in their corporate name, becoming Kling Products Company. In the attempt to keep the company running and generate income, Kurt Kling built Luna Park next to the brewery, and amusement park that included a roller coaster. However, the company was forced to close in 1921 and the building was torn down.

Following the end of Prohibition in 1933, Kling purchased Daily Brewery in Flint and resumed brewing by 1936. However, former bootleggers in Detroit still controlled distribution in Detroit, and Kling found it difficult to make his way back into the Detroit market. While the other major breweries were quick to make post-Prohibition recoveries, Kling’s Flint venture floundered and was out of business by 1942.

Postcard depicting the post-Prohibition Phillip Kling brewery in Flint: Image Source

Postcard depicting the post-Prohibition Phillip Kling brewery in Flint: Image Source

Back in East Lansing, we believe that the material from CAP excavations this summer is from Professor Gunson’s house, where he lived from 1891 until his death in 1940. A majority of the examples of Kling bottles online have the large, clear block lettering present on the second bottle fragment, while the first has serif lettering, for which I could find no online equivalent. It is possible that these bottles were from two different time periods, meaning Gunson could have been a long-term devotee of the brand throughout the span of its popularity. I could find no information concerning the distribution of Kling beer to other Michigan markets so it is unclear if Gunson purchased the beer locally or in Detroit. In any case, these small pieces of bottle glass tie MSU into the bigger picture of the Michigan brewing industry, which is a legacy in which the state prides itself today. I will hop into a more in-depth discussion of the social role of beer at MSU, in Michigan, and throughout world history in my next blog. In the meantime, relax and throw back a few cold ones—it will make the wait less brewtal.

Blum, Peter H.
1999 Brewed in Detroit: Breweries and Beers since 1830. Wayne State University
Press, Detroit, MI.

Done Up and Polished: The Brief History of a Nail Polish Topper

The Gunson/Admin assemblage continues to reveal gendered historical items linked to early females on campus. Most recently, Lisa Bright alerted me to the presence of a glass nail polish bottle stopper in the collection.

Dr. Jay Parker Pray Bottle Top - Gunson Unit D

Dr. Jay Parker Pray Bottle Top – Gunson Unit D

Luckily, the logo remains intact and, after some Googling, it was determined to be manufactured by the Dr. J. Parker Pray Company (established 1868). The New York City based company specialized in manicure and medicinal goods. Dr. Parker Pray began his career as a chiropodist, a hand and foot doctor, before transitioning into selling ladies’ cosmetic products.

In 1874, Dr. Parker Pray met Mary E. Cobb who had moved to New York City following the end of the Civil War. The two married that same year and Mary allegedly went to France shortly after to be trained in the techniques of manicure (1). Although Mary learned the traditional French manicure method, American women at the time did not greatly desire the French style. In 1878, she opened Mrs. Pray’s Manicure shop in New York City where she practiced a revised process of manicure that modern women are familiar with today (2). By all accounts, the shop and manufacturing businesses were wildly successful and the Prays are even credited with the invention of the emory board.

After the couple divorced in 1884, Mary returned to her maiden name and invested her energy into the expansion of her business through mail order and increased retail exposure (1). Mary even began to train women in the manicurist trade so that they could secure independent income. By 1900, Mary was in charge of one of the largest female-owned business operations in the world (as well as the largest manufacturer of pink and red nail polish) (1).

Boxes containing the polish were sold for 25 and 50 cents (3). While the bottle has not yet been found in the assemblage, just the discovery of the top is pretty cool! I was not able to secure dates (besides post-1868), but if the bottle is recovered we may be able to determine better manufacturing dates. If only Mary Cobb could have seen the variety of polish colors worn by women on campus today!

Dr. J Parker Pray Ad Circa 1905 - Source

Dr. J Parker Pray Ad Circa 1905 – Source




Red Souvenir Glass: A Beautiful Memory

Collecting souvenirs is not a modern phenomenon. Travelers have been collecting memorabilia of their adventures for centuries- bringing home with them evidence of the amazing sights and curiosities from far away places. They serve as an integral part of the travel experience for the tourist and for the native community. Souvenirs are evidence of where we have been, a tangible piece of our trip that we can bring home with us and share with others. They also provide those living in these areas with a source of income, or allow for protection and maintenance of heritage sites.

Example of Souvenir Glass from the World's Fair

Example of Souvenir Glass from the World’s Fair

One of the most popular types of souvenirs from the turn of the 20th century was a unique style of red glass simply called ‘Souvenir Glass’. The ability to personalize the souvenir was a fairly new phenomenon, and the cheap cost of the glass production made them extremely popular. Souvenir glass is a sub-type of Early American Pattern Glass. In the late 19th century, glass manufacturing greatly improved, making it easier and cheaper to make glass that had the look of more expensive crystal. Molten glass would be pressed into a mold that had a pattern in it, unlike cut glass or crystal where it needs to be hand shaped and cut by an expert.

Postcard from 1900s, sign reads "". via Bergie's Place Antiques

Postcard from 1900s, sign reads “Headquarters For Glass Engraving”. via Bergie’s Place Antiques

By the 1880s, manufacturers figured out how to add color to the pressed glass, allowing for a ruby red color to be placed in the goblet portion of it. This color was achieved by painting copper sulfate or other chemicals onto the glass, then firing it in a kiln at a high temperature, causing a chemical reaction and staining the glass. Since the coloring was painted on, it could be scratched off to engrave the glasses. The detail and precision of the engraving depended on the individual doing it- some appear to be hand-drawn while others were carefully etched with a lathe. During the early 1900s, it was popular for tourists to pick up these engraved ruby red glasses as memorabilia of their trip. The glasses would have the location, date, and could be pre-engraved with sentiments like ‘Mother’ or ‘Father’, or they could be personalized with the individual’s name. Postcards from the 1900s show images of tourists stopping at the “Headquarters For Glass Engraving” to get their ruby red classes engraved.

Souvenir Glass from Gunson Unit B

Souvenir Glass from Gunson Unit B

During the 2015 Campus Archaeology field school, we found a shard of ruby red glass with some engraving on it. Upon closer inspection, it was determined that this was souvenir glass, and was possibly engraved with a name. We know from our archival research, that the area excavated during the field school likely has the reconstruction remains of the Gunson household. Professor Gunson’s second wife, Lutie, may have been the owner of this souvenir glass. It is even possible that she collected it in Michigan. During the early 19th century, souvenir glass was a popular collectible purchases on Mackinac Island, and they have many examples of this type of memorabilia in their current museum. This is a very unique and interesting artifact- just from this one little shard, we can learn so much about who these people were. A souvenir is a keepsake of an important memory, so what might this glass have been a memory of? Perhaps it is from a family outing or a romantic trip?


Bergie’s Place: Early American Pattern Glass.

Frank Kriesche’s Ruby Red Souvenir Glass. Mackinac Park Website.