All Over the Board: Student Discontent and Agency in the Historic MSU Boarding Halls

I’ve written at length about the foods purchased by the early campus boarding hall (aka dining hall), as well as the dishes they likely served. However, what we do not know is what the students thought of this food. Did they like it? Or did they find the boarding hall offerings unsatisfactory? Items such as diaries and student newspapers can provide students’ perspectives on the meals they were served. In the case of early MSU, student dissatisfaction with food eventually led to widespread changes in the early boarding system in the 1880s.

Saints' Rest, the original boarding hall and site of illicit late-night feasting activities

Saints’ Rest, the original boarding hall and site of illicit late-night feasting activities. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Edward Granger was among the earliest students at the Agricultural College, and luckily wrote in great in detail about food served in Saints’ Rest, the first student dorm (ca. 1858-1859). Granger occasionally expressed positive feelings about the food, stating on Christmas Day that he “had a fine Christmas dinner considering that it was in the Agricultural College.” The next day, he wrote “After meeting we had a feast… Chicken and peaches, brown bread and ginger snaps. Everything was first rate, and we had a glorious meal.” (1)

However, Granger generally wasn’t the biggest fan of the food served by “the Institution,” as he refers to it. He mentions frequently skipping dinner and despairingly declares “[I] finished my supply of good things and suppose I shall have to live on the Institution or starve.” To cope, Granger and his friends ate snacks from home in their rooms or occasionally stole food from the kitchens. One late night he recounts that “Mr. Charley and Bush have just returned from an expedition to the lower regions. The booty consists in about a peck of fried cakes, to a portion of which we have been giving ample justice.” Another evening, a snack of eggs led Granger to observe, “Where Charley procured the eggs I don’t know. We asked no questions for conscience’s sake.” (1)

Cover of the first issue of The College Speculum

Cover of the first issue of The College Speculum. Courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Student discontent with food increased over the following decades as the college grew. The students expressed their anger through the establishment of a student newspaper, The College Speculum, and dissatisfaction with food served in the boarding hall is indicated as one of the principal arguments in favor of starting the paper (2). The first issue of The Speculum contains a lengthy treatise on the “question of the students’ board”. The author notes:

“Our system itself is no doubt at fault. Two hundred different tastes and dispositions can never be satisfied with the same food. The wholesale preparation of victuals is objectionable. Food cannot be well prepared in large quantities, and with the haste that necessarily attends such preparation. The wholesale use of canned and prepared goods, which are nearly always unwholesome, is a feature which has been overlooked. The finest vegetables are now growing in the garden, and are literally wasting as fast as they become eatable. Canned beans, peas, corn, tomatoes, etc., take the place of fresh food in the dining hall. With these facts before us we do not wonder that so many students complain of ill health, and so many leave college on that account.” (3).

Holy mackerel! Was Emory Fox charging his luxury food items to the students?!

Holy mackerel! Was Emory Fox charging his luxury food items to the students?! Image source.

This treatise may have been laying the groundwork for a student movement against the boarding hall steward, Emory C. Fox. The boarding hall stewards purchased supplies, oversaw food preparation staff, and presided over the tables in the dining hall (4). Fox was the steward from 1877-1881, and was extremely unpopular with students. In 1881 they charged him with fraud, claiming that Fox purchased lemons, oysters, mackerel, and oranges but that these items were never served to the students, implying that Fox purchased these items for himself (5). The students accused Fox with several other acts of fraud, as well (6).

After a review of the charges against Fox, the college Board of Trustees found that the alleged illicit food items were actually served to sick students in their rooms, and they found Fox to be an overall competent steward (7). However, on August 15, 1881, President Abbot notes that Fox resigned following the backlash but that “there was some hesitation about allowing him to resign” on his part (8).

This was not the end of student discontent, however. The Annual Catalogue of the State Agricultural College listed average weekly boarding costs for the prior academic year. During Fox’s tenure as steward, the average cost was between $2.27-$2.38. Under his successor, Conroy B. Mallory, this cost rose to $3.15 in the Spring of 1882. Students appreciated the improved menus under Mallory’s tenure, but not the increased cost (9).

Professor Rolla C Carpenter (c. 1885 pictured with his surveying equipment) was instrumental in bringing about the boarding clubs at the College.

Professor Rolla C Carpenter (c. 1885 pictured with his surveying equipment) was instrumental in bringing about the boarding clubs at the College. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

The idea of boarding clubs was inspired by Professor Carpenter, who, after observing the boarding system of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, painted a “bright picture” of the advantages of the club-boarding system, including better food at less cost (4). The Speculum supported this idea, suggesting the establishment of cooperative boarding clubs which would be under the control of the students. The establishment of smaller clubs would also serve to resolve the “boisterous conduct” seen in the solitary boarding hall (3).

The College, likely weary of student complaints, was quick to acquiesce to this plan. Cost effectiveness and practical concerns for feeding the increasingly large student body undoubtedly also played into the decision to do away with the traditional centralized boarding system. The transition is mentioned once in the Board meeting minutes:

“Prof. Carpenter presented the petition of the from the students of the College asking the Board to allow them to adopt the System of Boarding in clubs & made recommendations regarding the carrying out of this plan… It was resolved that the Secretary be Authorized to have the College Carpenter construct moveable partitions according to the plans of Prof. Carpenter in the basement of Wells & Williams Halls for five clubs at a Cost not to exceed $150.00 dollars.” (10)

The College Catalogue for 1882-1883 includes the first formal proof of the establishment of such clubs, stating, “A new plan of boarding in clubs has lately been put into operation. Separate kitchens and dining halls have been provided, and five clubs have been organized, by which the students are divided into groups not exceeding forty persons” (11) The average cost of board was $2.45, much less than the previous year.

Following this move, The Speculum reported that “not a word of complain was heard as to [the club system’s] price or quality,” marking a drastic change from prior discontent (2). However, this level of satisfaction would not last forever, and the boarding club system would see critiques, modifications, and eventual dissolution. But that’s a story for another time…

This account of MSU’s early food services is full of the kind of drama that makes for exciting history. More importantly, it exemplifies the power of unified student voices in times of great discontent, and just how much food-related issues can drive people to question and challenge powerful institutions.

 

References:

  1. Diary of Edward G. Granger, 1859 (MSU Archives UA10.3.56, Folder 1)
  2. The College Speculum (1883) Vol. 3 No. 2, p.12
  3. The College Speculum (1881) Vol. 1, No. 1, p.7
  4. Beal, W.J. (1915) History of the Michigan Agricultural College. Agricultural College, East Lansing (p. 216)
  5. State Agricultural Board of Trustees Meeting Minutes, 15 August 1881 (MSU Archives)
  6. The College Speculum (1881) Vol. 1, No. 2
  7. State Agricultural Board of Trustees Meeting Minutes 28 July 1881 (MSU Archives)
  8. Diary of Theophilus Abbot, 15 August 1881 (MSU Archives UA.2.1.3, Box 861)
  9. Kuhn, Madison (1955) Michigan State: The First Hundred Years. The Michigan state University Press East, Lansing.
  10. State Agricultural Board of Trustees Meeting Minutes 27 November 1882 (MSU Archives)
  11. The College Catalogue for 1882-1883 (1883). Agricultural College, East Lansing (p. 38)

In Sickness and Health: Dr. Sage’s Catarrh Remedy Bottle

Dr. Sage's medicine bottle from Saints Rest.

Dr. Sage’s medicine bottle from Saints Rest.

Today the non-prescription medicine we can buy at the drug store is heavily regulated yet readily available. But in the 19th century patent medicine was dominant. Patent medicines are proprietary (i.e. secret formula) mixtures that were unregulated, advertised widely and sold directly to the public. The popularity of the patent medicine industry is tied to issues with the 19th century medical industry. Qualified doctors were sparse and expensive. Medical knowledge was also undergoing profound changes during the 1800s. Prior to the 1880s most people subscribed to the miasmic theory of disease transmission. It held that diseases like cholera or the Black Death were caused by poisonous vapors or mists (called miasmas). According to the theory, illness was not passed between people, but would only impact people that were near a miasma. In the 1870s and 1880s the work of Joseph Lister and Robert Koch were instrumental in moving the germ theory of disease forward (1,2).

A family member relying on home remedies, the recipes for which were often found in cookbooks, generally provided routine health care.  However treating many of the terrible diseases that became widespread during the 19th century (typhoid, yellow fever, cholera) were beyond the skills of the average citizen. The fear of these diseases directly resulted in the incredible success of the patent medicine industry. Medicine became big business and entrepreneurs began selling all manner of completely unregulated medicine. During the 19th century any drug could be included in the formulas (like Heroin cough suppressant or cocaine toothache drops!), and any claim about the benefits and effectiveness of the medicine could be made.

Dr. Sage's Catarrh Remedy ad. Image Source.

Dr. Sage’s Catarrh Remedy ad. Image Source.

Our patent medicine bottle was recovered from the Saints Rest dormitory during excavations in 2012. As a quick reminder, Saints Rest was the first dormitory on campus and it unfortunately burned to the ground in December of 1876. This small square bottle is embossed on four sides and reads: “Dr Sage’s”, “Catarrh Remedy”, “Dr. Pierce Propr”, “Buffalo”. So what’s the story with this bottle you might ask?

Catarrh is an excessive discharge or buildup of mucus in the nose or throat – i.e. a very very stuffy nose with drainage. Today we would think of this condition as a symptom of a cold or allergy. The bottles sold for 50 cents (3). 

Figure 12 from “The People’s Common Sense Medical Adviser”, illustrating use of Dr. Pierce's Nasal Douche. Image Source.

Figure 12 from “The People’s Common Sense Medical Adviser”, illustrating use of Dr. Pierce’s Nasal Douche. Image Source.

The directions for use were published in newspaper advertisements as well as Dr. Pierce’s immensely popular book “The People’s Common Sense Medical Adviser”, which was essentially an advertisement for his various patent medicines. This book sold millions of copies and included patient testimonials touting the near-miraculous cures provided by his medicine. The Catarrh Remedy could be administered in several ways. After the powder was mixed with water, it could be snorted. Or, it is recommended that the best way to ensure that the remedy reaches all impacted areas is via hydrostatic pressure by means of Dr. Pierce’s Nasal Douche. Yes, a nasal douche.  Think of it as the great grandfather of todays neti pot. The nose is first flushed out with a saline solution, and then the Catarrh remedy fluid (4). Dr. Pierce’s remedies dominated the patent medicine market. Pierce was a master of marketing, using newspapers, broadsides, and billboards to saturate the market (5).

Advertisement for Dr. Pierces Family Medicines. Dr. Sage's Catarrh Remedy can be seen. Image Source.

Advertisement for Dr. Pierces Family Medicines. Dr. Sage’s Catarrh Remedy can be seen. Image Source.

By the beginning of the 20th century blind faith in patent medicine was beginning to waiver. A scathing exposé series, “The Great American Fraud“, was published in Colliers Magazine in 1905-1906.  The journalist, Samuel Hopkins Adams, revealed the dubious practices of the patent medicine industry, and highlighted the many shocking ingredients (6).  These articles created an immense public backlash and helped pave the way for the 1906 Pure Food & Drug Act.  The patent medicine industry, spearheaded by Dr. Pierce, fought viscously against the legislation, but eventually lost the battle.  The 1906 act dealt a substantial blow to patent medicine.  While it did not outlaw the use of alcohol or opiates in the products, the new labeling laws meant that consumers were no longer kept in the dark.  Sales of patent medicine declined rapidly (1).

This tiny bottle tells quite an interesting story that provides a glimpse into the everyday life of an early M.A.C. student.  Perhaps he suffered from allergies brought about by the abundant campus plants, or had contracted a severe head cold while out pilfering fruit from the orchard. Either way it’s a fun peek into the medicine cabinets of the past.

References:

  1. http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/Patent_Medicine.pdf
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germ_theory_of_disease
  3. The Current Publishing Company. July 23, 1887. No. 188: page 128.
  4.  Dr. Pierce “The People’s Common Sense Medical Adviser” 1895. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18467/18467-h/advise.html
  5. https://www.nyheritage.org/collections/nickell-collection-dr-rv-pierce-medical-artifacts
  6. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/44325/44325-h/44325-h.htm

Thirsty Throwback Thursday: A History of Ginger Beer

Today is the day! Campus Archaeology is throwing it wayy back with an 1860’s-inspired three-course meal. For my blog post this week, I thought I’d get into the spirit of historic food and drink with a little history—and some of my own, highly professional market research—on ginger beer.

Ginger beer bottle found at Saints’ Rest

Ginger beer bottle found at Saints’ Rest

Archaeology provides a unique opportunity to look at the physical evidence of past consumption. At MSU, archival documents tell us the official records of what the school bought for students and faculty to eat and drink. However, we can learn about what people were actually consuming on campus by looking at the archaeological record of things they threw away. This is how we learned that at least one thing people drank was ginger beer, as evidenced by a stone ginger beer bottle excavated from Saints’ Rest dormitory in 2005.

Ginger beer was a popular drink in Britain and North America from the 18th century until Prohibition. Technically speaking, ginger beer is not a beer. Whereas the production of beer involves the fermentation of a grain (typically barley or wheat) malted to turn its starch into sugar, ginger beer involves the fermentation of ginger and added sugar, typically molasses or cane sugar. Ginger beer is more likely related to the ‘small beers’ popular in Europe from Medieval times until Industrialization. Before the advent of sodas and modern soft drinks, these weakly alcoholic, fermented beverages were typically brewed at home and provided a safer alternative to often-contaminated water.

Ginger beer plant, the SCOBY responsible for fermenting ginger beer.

Ginger beer plant, the SCOBY responsible for fermenting ginger beer. Image source.

Why make a ginger drink? Humans have been drinking ginger beverages for thousands of years, often for medicinal purposes. However, the history of ginger beer is tied to the cultural and economic importance of its two main ingredients, ginger and sugar. Ginger and sugarcane, crops native to tropical regions of South Asia, were introduced to Europe via the spice trade. Europeans brought these crops and others to the New World, where they flourished in the tropical climates of the Caribbean. Powered by the labor of enslaved Africans, French- and English-controlled Caribbean plantations became the world’s biggest sugarcane producers. By 1655, England also controlled Jamaica, the Caribbean’s most prolific producer of ginger, with over two million pounds exported to Europe each year. Jamaican ginger was considered especially flavorful and was a prized ingredient in ginger beer.

Apart from ginger and sugar, ginger beer has two other traditional ingredients: lemon, and a special microorganism that aids in fermentation. The microorganisms responsible for the fermentation in ginger beer are a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (a SCOBY) known by the more innocuous name of “ginger beer plant.” A culture of ginger beer plant is added to sugar water flavored with ginger. These microorganisms ingest the sugars and produce carbon dioxide and low levels of alcohol as waste products. While today’s ginger beers are typically non-alcoholic, prior to the mid-19th century, ginger beer was up to 11% alcohol by volume. In 1855, British Parliament passed an act that imposed export taxes on beverages with an alcohol content above 2%. After this, most ginger beer brewers reduced the alcohol content in their products (via reduction of the fermentation time) in order to keep them affordable.

An example of a plain, early stoneware ginger beer bottle. From diggersdiary.co.uk.

An example of a plain, early stoneware ginger beer bottle. Image source.

After it was brewed, ginger beer was corked inside stoneware bottles, like the one found at Saints’ Rest. Early stoneware bottles and those brewed locally in North America at were usually fairly plain, brown in color, and etched with the bottler’s name or city. The Saints’ Rest bottle seems to fit into this category. Beginning in the 1880s, however, sleeker gray bottles with colorful shoulder slips and stamped logos designed to attract consumer attention became more popular.

Part of the reason for packaging in stone rather than glass bottles was cosmetic: ginger beer was usually unattractively cloudy in appearance. However, packaging was also functionally important in the export of ginger beer. England shipped large amounts of ginger beer to the U.S. and Canada beginning in the 1790s through the 19th century. Though ginger beer was brewed regionally, England maintained market dominance in North America because English breweries used superior quality stoneware bottles that better maintained ginger beer’s effervescence and kept it cold. The bottles were sealed with liquid- and gas-tight Bristol Glaze and wired and corked shut to maintain carbon dioxide in solution.

Examples of later, more decorative stone ginger beer bottles

Examples of later, more decorative stone ginger beer bottles. Image source

During Prohibition, ginger beer dipped in popularity in favor of its cousin, ginger ale, and other soft drinks. Unlike traditional ginger beer, ginger ale is made by adding ginger flavoring and sweetener to carbonated water and does not involve the addition of a microorganism. Today, the difference between ginger beer and ginger ale is much less clear. Many modern manufacturers use this abiotic process to make or enhance ginger beer, adding flavoring and carbonation without the use of a microorganism. For this reason, modern ginger beers differ from ginger ales primarily in flavor; they are typically spicier and less sweet than ginger ales.

All this research got me excited to try some ginger beers. Naturally, Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright and I had to do our own taste test, you know, for science. We picked four brands of ginger beer that I hadn’t yet tried at stores near us: Regatta, Barritt’s, Q, and Bundaberg. We tasted each ginger beer alone and for science—and because #gradschool—we added vodka and lime to make some Moscow Mules.

Modern ginger beer bottles from our taste test.

Modern ginger beer bottles from our taste test.

In no particular order, the first brand we tried was Regatta. It was spicy with a strong ginger flavor and made an enjoyable cocktail. Barritt’s was up next. This one was much less flavorful so it seemed disproportionally sweet, like a ginger ale. Third, we tried the Bundaberg. This was spicy and sweet and definitely enjoyable alone. Last, we tried Q ginger beer: spicy, very fizzy, but not at all sweet. According to the Q website, it is made with chili pepper and is specifically intended to be used as a mixer. Our highly scientific and definitive ranking put the Bundaberg in first place, Regatta in second, Q in close third, and Barritt’s in fourth.

If you have a favorite ginger beer, please tell us about it! We hope you open one up and think about early MSU students who might have enjoyed a ginger beer in their dorm after a long day of classes and farm work (although this was probably enjoyed in secret as alcohol was banned on campus).

References

http://www.ilovegingerbeer.com/ginger-beer-history/

http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/exhibition/1_3.html

http://www.scienceinschool.org/2008/issue8/gingerbeer

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/20/ginger-ale-vs-ginger-beer_n_1438420.html http://gingerlibation.com/what-is-ginger-libation/

http://www.antiquetrader.com/antiques/antique-glass/bottles-antique-glass/collecting-ginger-beer-bottles

http://www.fohbc.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/GingerBeerRootBeerHeritage.pdf

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

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!

 

The Kitchen Girls Part 2: Early Campus Female Life

In my last blog I introduced the female employees working at the Saint’s Rest boarding hall in 1866. These 33 women were paid an average of $2.00 – $2.50 a week for their work and were purchasing personal items through the university, charged against their monthly pay. Their purchases don’t appear to be work related; rather they are personal in nature. So let’s take a moment to further examine what these women were buying.

Corsets

Page of Saint's Rest Account Book showing corset purchases. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Page of Saint’s Rest Account Book showing corset purchases. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Corsets were the first things that caught my eye in these boarding hall purchasing records. On April 19th, 1866 seven of the women purchases corsets at a cost of $2.50 each. That’s an entire week’s pay!

Today wearing a corset may seem odd (although in some circles they are making a comeback) but the 1860s were at the height of the Victorian era (1837-1901), when corset wearing wasn’t just the norm, but was expected of women in order to obtain an ideal form. Because some of the women were also separately purchasing whalebone (at $0.15 a piece), we can deduce that they were not purchasing corsets with pre-weaved boning, which became popular (but more expensive) in the 1860s.

Whalebone corset c. 1864. Image Source - Victoria & Albert Museum

Whalebone corset c. 1864. Image Source – Victoria & Albert Museum

Balmoral Skirt

Balmoral Skirt. Image Source: American Textile History Museum

Balmoral Skirt. Image Source: American Textile History Museum

In May of 1866 Millie Trevallee purchased a balmoral skirt for the whopping price of $5.75. A balmoral skirt, or petticoat, is worn over a hoop skirt. There are several entries for girls purchasing hoop skirts. A hoop skirt gave the structural component to the large full dress skirts in fashion during this era. A balmoral petticoat was made of colored or patterned fabric and intended to show at the bottom of a dress. The most common type of Balmoral skirt was made of red wool with 2-4 black stripes running around the hem. In the late 1860s other patterns became popular as the trend spread through different levels of society.

Fabric

Sewing machine invented in the early 1850s lead to mass production of clothing. However, due to the amount of raw fabric being purchased, it’s likely that these women were making their own clothing. The rural nature of the area, and their socio-economic status may explain the lack of pre-made clothing. The kitchen girls were purchasing muslin, printed fabric ( such as gingham), cotton fabric, ladies cloth (a lightweight multipurpose fabric), bishop lawn (light weight slightly blue cotton fabric), silk, and a variety of colored fabric (such as pink and purple). They also purchased trim, ruffling, buttons, and hook and eye closures.

Saint's Rest Account Book showing purchase of hoop skirt, fabric, medicine and other personal items. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Saint’s Rest Account Book showing purchase of hoop skirt, fabric, medicine and other personal items. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Ayer's Ague Cure Ad - Image Source

Ayer’s Ague Cure Ad – Image Source

Medicine

Most of the entries related to health purchases are vague such as pills, “Doctor Bill”, “Paid to Dentist”, or “1 chicken for Mary Bage (sick)”. However a few purchases give us a glimpse into the medical issues and treatments of the time. Several women made purchases of iron tinctures, quinine, and Ague Cure. The iron tincture is a bit more straightforward than the quinine and Ague Cure. Today quinine may only sound familiar to as an ingredient in tonic (it’s what gives tonic it’s bitter flavor), but historically this was used to treat malaria and other ailments. Since malaria isn’t exactly common place in Lansing, it’s more likely that Ada was using it for one of it’s other purpose – such as treating a fever of another cause. The Ague Cure she also purchased in June was also used for fever and chills, known commonly as “malarial disorders”.

This is not a complete list of the items purchased by the female employees, but they are perhaps the most interesting.  Although clothing related purchases dominate the 1866 record they were also incurring expenses for mending shoes, purchasing stamps, and travel.  These account books have provided a rare glimpse into the everyday lives of early female university employees.  They have also allowed us to begin to understand part campus history that we have not yet uncovered in the archaeology of campus.

References:

http://www.maggiemayfashions.com/corsets.html

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/c/corsets-and-crinolines-in-victorian-fashion/

http://thedreamstress.com/2012/11/terminology-what-is-a-balmoral-petticoat/

Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections:

UA 17.107 Box 1140 Folder 8

Madison Kuhn Collection 17.107 Box 1141 Folder 66

UA 17.107 Box 2461 Item #40

The Kitchen Girls: Getting to Know Female Campus Employees in the 1860s (Part 1)

Saint's Rest Boarding Hall circa 1865. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Saint’s Rest Boarding Hall circa 1865. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Michigan State University is a big place. Today the main campus is over 5,200 acres, there are 545 buildings, and over 50,000 students. Campus is essentially its own little city and there’s a large work force of approximately 6,800 support staff employees that work around the clock to make things run smoothly. In the early years of the campus, although the campus size and student body were much smaller, a large staff was still necessary to run the college. We’ve been able to do extensive research on experiences of the early faculty and students, but finding information on the employees is more difficult because their experience is often missing from the historical and archaeological record.

As part of the ongoing food reconstruction project, I’ve been going through the Saint’s Rest boarding hall receipt books with Susan Kooiman and Autumn Beyer at the MSU Archives. While recording the 1866-1867 book I noticed some purchases that didn’t quite maker sense; corsets, garters, ribbon, parasols, hoops skirts, etc. Each was associated with a woman’s name. Female students weren’t officially admitted to the university until 1870, so who were these women showing up in the boarding hall account books?

Boarding Hall Receipt 1866 showing purchases of hoop skirt, belt riot and shoes. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

Boarding Hall Receipt from 1866 showing purchases of hoop skirt, belt riot and shoes. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

I think that they were the employees of the boarding hall.

Before going through this receipt book we only knew of them through brief mentions in other archival material. In his essay “The Dawn of Michigan Agricultural College” James Gunnison, a member of the inaugural class of 1861, mentions that boys used the parlor (in Saint’s Rest) to visit with the “dining-room girls” (UA 17.107 Box 1140 Folder 8). A 1859 letter notes that the following women were employed at the boarding hall: 2 girls to do the laundry, 2 women as cooks, 1 women in the kitchen to wash dishes and do other odd jobs, 2 girls in the dining room to serve, 1 girl for “chamber work”, and 1 girl for the general washing, washing towels for the washing room, and making candles (Madison Kuhn Collection 17.107 Box 1141 Folder 66). Thankfully now we have identifies for at least 33 of the women that worked at the boarding hall in 1866:

  • Mary Bage
  • Mary Bates
  • Ellen Connor
  • Susan Connor
  • Mary Gannon
  • Matilda Gidley
  • Phobe Gidley
  • Mariah Horbeck
  • Martha King
  • Maria Martin
  • Annie Martin
  • Jane Phillips
  • Adelade Place
  • Mary Roller
  • Rachel Roller
  • Lovina Shattuck
  • Barbary Stabler
  • Jane Trembly
  • Mattie Trevallee
  • Pamelia Trevallee
  • Angie Trevallee
  • Millie Trevallee
  • Mollie Trevallee
  • Malvina Trevler
  • Pamelia Trevler
  • Delia Tyler
  • Lucinda Van Horn
  • Susan Wilson
  • Matilda Wilson
  • Mary Young
  • Mollie Young
  • Jennie Young
  • Agusta Young

The 1859 letter indicates that at least 9 women at a time were employed at the boarding hall, and as enrollment grew it’s logical to assume that more women were hired to work on campus. The receipt book also notes when employees left for a period of time, and when new ones began working.

Unfortunately the timing of the employment records, 1866, makes it a little difficult to track down more information on these specific individuals. The 1860 Michigan census can be a bit sketchy, and by 1870 many of these women may have moved out of the area, or gotten married and thus changed their last name (although Pamelia Trevallee appears in the 1870 census still working as a domestic servant in the boarding hall (spelled Travailla in the census)). Most likely these women were in their late teens or early 20s when employed by the university, further complicating finding them by traditional genealogical means (Pamelia Trevallee is 21 in the 1870 census, making her 17 in the 1866 book). Interestingly many of these women share the same last night, suggesting that they are related.

April 1866 - showing purchases and being marked paid. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

April 1866 – showing purchases and being marked paid. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

In the mid 1860s there were approximately 100 students on campus, so why was there the need for so many female employees at the boarding hall (there are male laborers listed in the receipt book but that is a blog for another day). We need to remember that housework in the 19th century was incredibly laborious and highly gender specific.

April 1866 - Barbery Stabler began work at a rate of $2.50 per week. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

April 1866 – Barbery Stabler began work at a rate of $2.50 per week. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

The women were being paid $2.00 – $2.50 per week for their work. It appears the room and board was also included as part of their employment. What I’m seeing in the receipt books appears to be purchases/charges employees made against their weekly payroll. At the end of every month the accounts are balanced, with any remaining money being paid out to the individual.  For example Millie Trevallee charges $11.28 in May and $4.05 in June and is paid $4.90 at the end of June, balancing the ~$20 she would have made for two months work.

These receipt books provide a unique glimpse into the lives of female university employees in the 1860s. Stay turned for The Kitchen Girls Part 2 next week where I will explore the fashionable purchases they were making.

References:

Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections:

UA 17.107 Box 1140 Folder 8

Madison Kuhn Collection 17.107 Box 1141 Folder 66

UA 17.107 Box 2461 Item #40

United States Census 1870 State of Michigan, Ingham County, Town of Meridian schedule 1, page 30

https://msu.edu/about/thisismsu/facts.html

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.