With the 4th of July approaching, you are probably busy planning picnics, cookouts, and parties to celebrate the nation’s 235th birthday. One thing these events all have in common is food. Nowadays, disposable and reusable plates and plastic storage containers are common at summertime gatherings. But what were people using 235 years ago when they served food to their guests?
Ceramics: A Brief Introduction
In the 18th-century, ceramic plates and serving dishes were commonly used during meals. The three main ceramic types include earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain.
- Usual forms include tablewares, such as plates and serving dishes, and storage containers
- A soft and porous clay body that is easily breakable
- Without a glaze, earthenware cannot hold water
- Fired at a higher temperature than earthenware, stoneware is more durable
- Used primarily for storage containers like bottles, jugs, and crocks and mugs
- English white salt-glazed stoneware was used for table settings
- Fired at the highest temperature of the three ceramic types, it was popular in the colonies due to its glassy appearance and “exotic” origins
- According to James Deetz, “Unlike stoneware and earthenware, [porcelain] is translucent” which was quite appealing to the American and European markets.
- Porcelain was used for table settings and tea services. It was too expensive/fine to be used for storage vessels.
It was common for a family or household to own all three ceramic types. Much as people today have every day china, “good” china, and ceramic utilitarian wares like baking pans and mixing bowls, so too did families in the 18th-century. In sticking with the theme of 4th of July cookouts, we could also view the different ceramics as the”paper” plates, “plastic” plates, fancy china, and Tupperware of the 18th-century.
The “Paper” Plates
Unlike our disposable paper plates today, ceramic plates and other table wares from the eighteenth-century were not disposed of after a meal. They were, however, similar to paper plates because they were less formal. These wares were used for more informal gatherings and everyday family dinners.
Redware is an earthenware that was first manufactured c. 1500. It was available in a variety of vessel forms, including plates. Redware is easily broken and can be glazed or unglazed, either with or without decoration. It can be identified by the following attributes:
- a brick-red clay body
- a clear or black lead glaze
Slipware is a type of redware. It was decorated by applying a colored slip (a mixture of water and clay) to a vessel. Common design motifs include: dotted, combed, trailed, and marbled.
The “Plastic” Plates
These wares are similar to the “paper” plates mentioned above, but are more refined and desirable.
Tin-enameled earthenware vessels were popular for table settings. Produced in Europe, it was often decorated with motifs common to Chinese Porcelain (blue and white) in an attempt to compete with porcelain wares.
- Tin-Enameled glaze easily flakes off and sits predominantly on top of the clay body.
- The glaze has a slight blue tint to emulate chinese porcelain
- Body is pink or cream-colored
English White Salt-Glazed Stoneware (c.1740-1805)
White salt-glazed stoneware is white in color due to the addition of kaolin clay. Because it is more durable than tin-enamel, it rapidly rose in popularity in the mid 18th-century. It can be identified by:
- White body
- “Orange Peel” textured salt glaze
- Fancy rim patterns formed by molds
Creamware was popular in the colonies due to its relatively low-cost and the ability to buy matching place settings. It was also popular because of its hard, more durable body which allowed people to cut food on it without damaging the glazed surface.
Creamware was manufactured for the American market and could be plain with simple rims or decorated with famous Americans, American symbols, and even patriotic/revolutionary messages. Distinguishing characteristics include:
- Cream colored clay body
- Glaze can appear yellow-green, especially in the crevices where the glaze has pooled
Whieldon Ware (c.1740-1775)
Whieldon is a refined ware featuring a mottled colorful design. It had similar rims to the popular English salt-glazed stoneware and, in some cases, was made using the same rim molds. Colors include brown, purple, green, yellow, black and blue; one plate could include many different colors mottled together.
Pearlware is a refined earthenware similar to creamware. The glaze differs from creamware because of the addition of cobalt, which gives the glaze a blue tint. Following the introduction of pearlware, the popularity of creamware declined. Pearlware was relatively inexpensive and more closely resembled Chinese porcelain than its predessesor, creamware. Pearlware is identified by:
- A harder, whiter body than creamware
- Blue tint to glaze, especially in crevices
- Can be plain or decorated, and, like creamware, was sometimes decorated with American designs and themes
- Shell-edged pearlware was a popular design that included a textured rim and either blue, green, red, or yellow glaze.
The “Fancy” China
Chinese Porcelain (c.1574-1830)
Porcelain is a high-end ceramic that was very popular in America. Not only was it in high demand because of its appearance, it was also appealing because it made the owner appear worldly. Since the Chinese protected their porcelain recipe, Europeans were not able to replicate it until the end of the 17th-century.
In the 1770s, porcelain was reserved for wealthier persons and fancier events. Chinese porcelain, when decorated, was hand-painted and usually included landscapes, floral designs, and/or geometric patterns. When people today talk about “using the fine china,” they are usually hosting a formal event as opposed to a backyard barbeque. Historically, porcelain would be used for more formal gatherings as it is today.
Identifying characteristics include:
- Body looks like it is made of grains of sugar
- Often finer, thinner vessels than seen in earthenwares and stonewares
After you have served the burgers, hotdogs, and macaroni salad at your holiday cookout, it is time to put the left overs away. Today we have plastic storage containers, but historically, redware and stoneware were used to store food.
Redware is a red-bodied earthenware. It can be glazed or unglazed. Redware was made into large storage vessels that came in various shapes and sizes.
Stoneware was also used for utilitarian storage vessels. The stoneware storage containers were produced either in England or domestically in the colonies. They are brown, tan, or gray in color and sometimes include a blue scratched decoration.
Though there are many obvious differences between our plates and plates of the Revolutionary period, we still distinguish what type of plate we will be using depending on the type of event we are celebrating. As you sit down to your 4th of July meal, think back to meals 235 years ago and all of the beautiful and useful ceramic wares they were using.
Cochrane, Rosemary. Salt-Glazed Ceramics. Wiltshire: Crownwood Press, 2001.
Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten. New York: Doubleday, 1977.
S. Robert Teitelman et al. Creamware for the American Market. Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club Ltd, 2010.
Historic Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History website http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/histarch/gallery_types/type_list.asp