The Saints’ Rest excavations conducted by the Campus Archaeology Program have been well-documented and researched not only because this was the inaugural project for CAP, but also that it is one of the earliest buildings on campus, giving us a rare glimpse into how students […]
Tag: Saints Rest
Happy Halloween! Yesterday we hosted our 5th annual Apparitions & Archaeology: A Haunted Campus Tour. For this year’s tour, we decided to change several of the stops and the MSU Paranormal Society added stories from their investigations of each area! If you weren’t able to […]
The Saints’ Rest Dormitory has a foundational history with Michigan State University, acting as the first dormitory for the fledgling college, and with the Campus Archaeology Program itself, being the first large-scale excavation and archaeological fieldschool on campus. Built in 1856, Saints’ Rest was the second building erected on campus for the new school and was known as “the House”, “the hall”, or “old hall” . The building acted as the primary dormitory on campus until 1870 when Williams Hall was built. Unfortunately, Saints’ Rest burned down in the winter of 1876.
The site was originally excavated in 2005 as part of the Sesquicentennial Celebration and has been revisited for excavations in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2012. Throughout these digs, CAP has uncovered numerous artifacts relating to early campus life including items of personal hygiene, such as the lice comb that Lisa described in one of her earlier blog posts. Another item relating to hygiene found at Saints’ Rest was a fragmented, but reconstructed, chamber pot lid (Figure 1).
Measuring about 12in in diameter, the ceramic chamber pot lid has some kind of floral motif on the exterior surface; however, it is unclear as to what it exactly depicts (if you have any suggestions or recognize the pattern let us know – it’s previously been described as a thistle and leaf pattern). The dark blue color of most of the fragments is a result of burning during the fire.
Evidence for the use of chamber pots stems all the way back to ancient Greece, dating to the 6th century BCE [2, 3]. The use of chamber pots became more common, and more necessary, as areas of the world became increasingly urbanized. With settlements becoming larger and more organized and planned, sanitation became a major concern for many densely populated areas . Although extensive plumbing systems were installed in ancient Rome, indoor plumbing did not become readily available for small-scale buildings and for residents until the 19th century with chamber pots being used even into the 20th century .
The presence of this chamber pot lid in an early campus archaeological context highlights some of the realities of life on campus. These first students did not have the (then) luxury (but now commonality) of using a restroom inside the dorm that is separated from other rooms or is regularly sanitized; their only options were to use the privy just south of the building or to use a chamber pot inside their room. Chamber pots were often stored under the bed or in cabinets, and then emptied into designated dumping areas . Even with a lid covering the pot (and its contents), exposure to pathogens and diseases that travel through fecal matter was exponentially higher than it is today. Of course chamber pots were not the only reason that diseases relating to poor sanitation jumped easily from person to person, but the use of these vessels didn’t truly help to eradicate the problem. In 1886, there was an outbreak of typhoid fever (which is directly linked to fecal contaminants) on campus which resulted in one student death. It wasn’t until the 1890s that the college had modern plumbing installed after epidemics of diphtheria and measles, and after numerous student and parent complaints . These outbreaks even resulted in the college creating a 7-room hospital building to quarantine infected people as soon as possible.
Although we recognize that our lives as MSU students today are different from those of 150 years ago, sometimes we don’t realize by just how much. The presence of the chamber pot lid at Saints’ Rest highlights one of these aspects that may have contributed to serious health crises that broke out on campus. Books and movies have a tendency to romanticize the past as formal and proper, but studying this chamber pot lid, while fascinating, has only reinforced my gratitude for modern amenities and hygienic practices, e.g. indoor plumbing.
 Kuhn, Madison. Michigan State: the first hundred years, 1855-1955. Michigan State University Press, 1955.
 Kravetz, Robert E. Chamber Pot. The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 2006, 101: pp. 1414-1415.
 D’Agostino, Mary Ellin. Privy Business: Chamber Pots and Sexpots in Colonial Life. Archaeology, 2000, 53(4): pp. 32-37.
 van der Linden, Huub. Medals and Chamber Pots for Faustina Bordoni: celebrity and Material Culture in Early Eighteenth-Century Italy. Journal for eighteenth-century studies. 40(1): 23-47.
 Cunningham, Zac. “Of Chamber Pots and Close Stool Chairs”. Web blog post. Lives and Legacies Blog. 15 July, 2015.
Take a long look at the objects in the picture below. What do you think they are? I bet that your first guess was just a little bit off. They are not small hand-cuffs (as they were originally labeled in the lab!), buckles, or tiny […]
As you may know from my previous blog posts, I have been working on analyzing the faunal remains from Campus Archaeology excavations. My current research project focuses on the Saints’ Rest trash midden, excavated in several seasons by CAP near the location where Saints’ Rest once stood. Because of the sites’ use as a small public dumping area, the artifacts recovered are expected to reflect the daily life of those living at and nearby Saints’ Rest dormitory. The end goal of this research project, in conjunction with research by Lisa Bright, Amy Michael, Jeff Painter, and Susan Kooiman, is to better understand the everyday lives of the early MSU students.
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 […]
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. […]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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. […]