J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Fish Scales, Tea Saucers, and Changing Habits

Early this month the Boston Globe ran Gail Beckerman’s interview with Prof. Paul Mullins, president of the Society for Historical Archaeology, on learning about the development of American consumer habits through artifacts:
We actually have a lot of archeological data that speak to food consumption....Fish is actually a good example. It’s one of those things that you find in the Chesapeake, in Baltimore, D.C., and Virginia. We see lots and lots of fish scales early on in the 18th century into mid-century and then the scales kind of disappear and then we only see fish bones, and that’s probably a transition from buying things in the street to going to stores, because when you get into the store you are having the fish already pre-cleaned. . . .

By the 18th century and the Revolution, one of the things that is happening is the development of a marketplace you or I would recognize, with a fair amount of mass-produced goods and class distinctions and patterns. And some things that are in every household begin to appear. Tea consumption is a really good example. And that’s something that’s very easy for us to see archeologically because we see the introduction of teacups and spoons. We also have probate inventories so we can look at what people have at the time of their death. Tea starts as a relatively elite activity but it very rapidly becomes something every American is participating in, but often in idiosyncratic ways. Some people drink out of saucers, some drink out of very fine Chinese porcelain, some folks drink out of fabulous-looking English ceramics with big tea services.
At Williamsburg Marketplace, a commercial website of Colonial Williamsburg, product manager and former curator Liza Gusler answers a question about drinking tea from a saucer:
From my research in Virginia documents and British prints and paintings, I suspect that some people of lower social rank drank from saucers, but that an 18th-century “Miss Etiquette” would not consider it “the done thing.” There is a satirical print called “Lady Nightcap at Breakfast” that shows a young woman sipping from a saucer. Her costume hints that “Lady Nightcap” might not be received for tea in the best London drawing rooms. I've never seen someone sipping from a saucer in more formal period “conversation” paintings, which often depict gentry families or parties taking tea.
The cup and saucer above, from mid-eighteenth-century France, come courtesy of artist and antiques dealer Andrew Hopkins. The picture shows how many saucers of the time were more like little bowls than like flat little plates—much easier to drink from. As “Lady Nightcap” demonstrates.

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