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.

Author: Jeff Painter


MSU Archives & Historical Collections: Kuhn Collection Volume 91. Agricultural boarding hall.

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