It continues to amaze me how broken and dirty artifacts excavated from an archaeological site can reveal details of the people, manufacturing techniques and material culture of a time long past. I recently had the opportunity to analyze two non-mendable sherds of black-transfer printed whiteware found on the land of wealthy plantation owner, Henry Fitzhugh, who was a prominent wheat farmer in the Fredericksburg, Virginia region; he inherited his land from Mary Ball Washington’s descendants.
With a little research, manufacturing techniques of the time were uncovered. Both pieces of whiteware were thinly potted and molded, and have incising at their base. Black transfer printed wares were produced from 1785 to 1865 (Stelle 2001), but whitewares were not produced until the early-19th century. A design was engraved into a copper plate; the plate was then inked, and a thin tissue pressed onto it. The tissue would then be removed and placed on the ceramic to be decorated, lightly fired, glazed, then fired again. Visible on the larger of the two sherds are the nearly-complete words “Reward of Merit” that are surrounded by a leaf border. The smaller sherd has a floral design printed on it. Upon closer inspection, shadow text can be seen where the transfer had been misplaced and then reapplied. The ink missing from inside the block letters appears to have been re-filled somehow, indicated by the incomplete and uneven ink within them.
The curvature of the sherds indicates they came from a small vessel, most likely a children’s drinking mug (similar to the complete example on the right). Until 1830, ceramic mugs were only printed on one side. Post-1830, mugs were printed on both sides, or in one continuous pattern around the mug (Riley 1991:12). The lesser quality of the sherds, in combination with the printing on them, infers a production date for these sherds of circa 1850.
Between 1820 and 1865, immigrants flooded into the new country, prompting American parents to educate their children in reading and writing, and encouraging manners, values and morals (Rider Minton 2006:1). This was born out of an effort to maintain the new nation’s social ideal of respectability, as Americans felt that foreign cultures and religions threatened to throw the social norm into chaos. This push for social respectability came shortly after the ceramic industry’s initial focus on children as a marketing target (Riley 1991:7).
During the middle of the 19th-century, children’s wares were produced in bulk (Riley 1992:12). The printed designs became less elaborate and the quality of the transfer declined. Wares with tilted and off center prints would have been considered “seconds” and, of course, were the cheapest to buy (Samford 2017: per. comm.).
Themes for children’s wares included: rewards for good children; family life; animals; fun and games; nursery rhymes; the ABCs; and Benjamin Franklin’s maxims. As was true to the period, some prints reaffirmed gender roles: girls sewing or doing laundry, boys at rough play or working in the fields (Riley 1991:6). Not all children’s wares contained happy subjects or encouraging messages; some would be deemed as inappropriate for children today. Cumulative rhymes – where a rhyme on one ceramic would build from the rhyme on another – often contained the most inappropriate verses (Siddall 2014). The Death of Cock Robin, for example, asks “who saw him die” and “who caught his blood?” Morbid? Yes, but for children of the 19th-century, death was a very familiar event.
The 1850 and 1860 United States Census records shows that the Fitzhughs were some of the wealthiest people in the county, and that they employed private teachers for their eleven children. Their elite status in the community would have ordained them an example of the social ideal of respectability Americans were trying to attain; therefore, educating their children would have been a priority. It was most likely one of the teachers – of lesser means than the Fitzhugh family – who bought the lower-quality mug for one of the younger children they taught, sometime between 1850 and the winter of 1862, when the property was abandoned. The mug was most likely a reward for a lesson well-learned or a job well-done.
Today, these two tiny sherds of ceramic continue to teach lessons – and to reward us with a glimpse of past-lives, manufacturing techniques and the culture of a new country.
Rider Minton, Amy Karen
2006 A Culture of Respectability: Southerners And Social Relations In Richmond, VA, 1820-1865. Doctoral Dissertation, Department of History, University of Virginia, Charlottesville. University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, MI.
1991 Gifts For Good Children: The History Of Children’s China, 1790-1890. Richard Dennis, The Old Chapel, Ilminster, Somerset, England.
2014 Cumulative Rhymes On Children’s Pottery. DishyNews: A Transferware Blog. <http://dishynews.blogspot.com/2014/02/cumulative-rhymes-on-childrens-pottery.html>.Accessed 1 October 2017.
Stelle, Lenville J.
2001 An Archaeological Guide to Historic Artifacts of the Upper Sangamon Basin. Center For Social Research, Parkland College. <http://virtual.parkland.edu/lstelle1/len/archguide/documents/arcguide.htm>. Accessed 1 October 2017.