“Setting the table” in my busy home usually entails some plates, glasses, forks, and – if we’re lucky – paper napkins. (In a pinch, paper towels do the job just fine.) Holidays like Thanksgiving, however, call for a little more fanfare on the table. I get out the large platter for the turkey, the fine china, and the gravy boat. I set out dinner plates, salad plates, and dessert plates. I fill food into pretty serving dishes that hardly see the light of day any other time of year. After the meal has been eaten and the dishes washed, most of these special pieces go back into my cabinets until the next holiday rolls around.
I presume that most modern American families are like mine in that they make use of the same basic tableware on a daily basis: cups, bowls, plates, silverware. I’m sure that you, the reader, are familiar with these staples of the dinner table. Despite their less frequent use, you are also undoubtedly familiar with the platter, gravy boat, and dessert plate. What about, on the other hand, the twiffler?
Here in the NMSC archeology lab, I have been busy cataloging a collection of artifacts that includes several twifflers. The collection was excavated from an upper middle class house site in Lowell, Massachusetts that dates to about 1845, and is full of ca. 1830s and 1840s ceramics. Almost every provenience contains pearlware and whiteware tablewares and teawares, with decorative techniques ranging from transfer-printed designs, to hand-painted floral motifs, to cabled, marbled, and dendritic slipped designs.
The quantity and variety of ceramic vessels excavated from this site illustrate the increasing importance in the early Victorian era of owning and showing off a proper and fashionable array of dishes. In the mid-nineteenth century, a proper lady owned the right dish for every element of food and drink. This collection contains several shell-edged and transfer-printed twifflers, which were actually ubiquitous in 19th-century households. As historian Robert Mazrim notes, “During the early 19th century, English potters manufactured four principal sizes of plates: table, supper, twiffler, and muffin.” (p. 162) Twifflers were a size down from a dinner plate (about 8 to 9 inches in diameter), while muffins were smaller, equivalent to what we might call a side plate.
It turns out that the archeological record is full of vessel types that are unused and largely unheard of today. Some were made obsolete by technological improvements, others by changes in the availability and consumption of specific foods, and still others by changes in the way we eat and entertain in our homes.
Perhaps one of the most recognizable obsolete ceramic vessels is the chamber pot. Although it’s not something that was ever used on the dining table, it’s a great example of a vessel form made unnecessary by technological innovation. It’s not hard to understand why people stopped using chamber pots. Once you got indoor plumbing, you didn’t really need your chamber pot anymore. Although they were a lovely shape and were often decorated with colorful – even downright funny! – designs or images, I venture to guess that most people were eager to abandon them for flushing toilets.
The saltcellar is another vessel type that passed out of popular use because of technology. A saltcellar is a dish used for dispensing salt at the table. In use since Roman times, saltcellars were made of ceramic, glass, metal, and even wood. Salt was taken from the cellar with small spoons. Saltcellars became commonplace by the early 19th century, with pressed glass varieties like the Sandwich Glass example shown here extremely popular from the 1830s on. To read more about this beautiful, patriotic-themed saltcellar, check out our earlier blog post: Please Pass the Patriotism! An America-inspired saltcellar from Petersburg, Virginia. In the early 20th century, free-flowing salt became available through the addition of anti-caking agents. Salt shakers became all the rage, and saltcellars disappeared from our tables.
Many 19th-century pressed or cut glass services included a celery vase. Although you may not think much of celery today, in the 19th century, it was a delicacy. Growing celery was extremely labor-intensive, and celery was therefore expensive and not widely available. As illustrated in this late 19th-century advertisement for tomato soup, when celery was purchased, it was not chopped into a recipe, but rather set on the table in a fancy vase for all to see. By the late 19th century, some glass and ceramic sets included an oblong celery dish instead of a vase. As the 20th century progressed, improvements in agriculture and faster and easier transportation of produce allowed for the wider consumption of celery. What was once a delicacy proudly displayed for dinner guests has become perhaps one of the most underappreciated items in the supermarket produce aisle.
These are only a few examples of vessel types that history has made largely obsolete. Others might include the porringer, the slop bowl, and the nappy. This Thanksgiving, consider treating your guests to a little piece of history. Instead of a vase of fresh flowers in the center of your table, why not a vase of fresh celery? Put away your saltshaker and invite your family and friends to spoon some salt out of a saltcellar. (I acknowledge that the chamber pot may be pushing it.) However you decide to dress your table this Thanksgiving, we at NMSC wish you a very happy one!
Husfloen, Kyle. Collector’s Guide to American Pressed Glass 1825-1915. Radnor, PA: Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1992.
Mazrim, Robert. The Sangamo Frontier. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.