Research on Antiques & Collectibles


Contributed by:

Of the various types of eighteenth-century material that have been unearthed in excavations at Williamsburg, ceramics are the least susceptible to decomposition. Thus the fragments found have been tremendously helpful in establishing what wares were actually used there, quite aside from the supporting evidence of contemporary records. The Palace inventories are less illuminating - we find, for example, quantities of quite unidentified "dishes" - but many of its references may be interpreted in the light of the fragments. These have shed light on other buildings as well, since excavating has been done at a number of points.

The fragments make it clear that delftware, both English and Dutch, was well known in Williamsburg. The English learned to make this tin-enameled ware from the Dutch, who had produced it in the attempt to imitate the Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. Dutch delft tiles with designs in blue or purple were a standard article of import in the American Colonies, used for framing fireplaces, as in several rooms at Williamsburg. English delftware, in plain white or decorated in colors, is seen in greater variety, from punch bowls in the Palace ballroom to the rare doll in the Brush-Everard house.

From Germany the English had learned the process of making salt-glazed stoneware, and this "white stone china" was extensively advertised in America. Fragments at Williamsburg indicate its use there. Probably it was the "white china" listed in the Palace inventory. The "coloured china" listed may have been one of the variegated wares associated with the English potters Whieldon, Astbury, and Wedgwood. Some fine examples of these wares, whose characteristic "agate," marbled, and tortoiseshell effects were obtained by colored clays or colored glazes, are in the little dining room of the Palace and the dining room of the Brush-Everard house.

English creamware, which was perfected in the 1760's and eventually supplanted these earlier eighteenth-century wares, has been found in quantity among the fragments. Dishes with a molded or "feathered" edge touched with blue or green were apparently very popular. Possibly this is what is meant by the "Staffordshire Ware" listed in considerable amounts in the inventory, though delft, saltglaze, and the variegated wares were also all made in Staffordshire. So was slip-decorated pottery, the traditional ware of the region, and it too was imported here. The "Staffordshire Ware" listed includes, besides "dishes," such forms as "mugs, coffee pots, tea pots, wash hand basins, cream pails and ladles." It was apparently utilitarian, as contrasted with "16 pieces ornamental china."

Other ornaments were "22 Chelsea china figures" in two rooms at the Palace. These must have been quite a rarity, for not much English porcelain was known in Williamsburg. More usual ornaments would have been earthenware figures made by English potters working in the Whieldon tradition. Some early Worcester tablewares may have been imported, as well as a few items from the other English soft-paste porcelain manufactories, such as Bow and Chelsea, though there is very little record of English porcelain in the American Colonies in the eighteenth century. Still less numerous would have been examples of the first English hard-paste porcelain made at Plymouth and Bristol, Porcelain from China, however, was familiar. Since the early 1600's the East India Companies had been bringing to Europe the blue-and-white ware called Nankin china, and, in the eighteenth century, the Oriental export porcelain, decorated to special order. These wares also become available in the Colonies. Fragments of this "East India china" found at Williamsburg are numerous, and it is believed that most of it was imported before the Revolution. There were "39 pieces nanken china for tea" at the Palace in 1770, besides many "blue and white china dishes." The "enameled" and "flowered" china there may have been Chinese porcelain, or it may have been delft or saltglaze with painted decoration in imitation of the Chinese.

Not only was a wide variety of ceramic wares available to the colonist - and even more extensively, of course, to the royal governor - but also glassware of the most distinguished quality. Glass in every form, and in the fine lead metal achieved by George Ravenscroft in 1675, was an outstanding British specialty in the eighteenth century. Like other British products, it was exported to the Colonies.

The products of the English glasshouses included a splendid array of drinking glasses, some of them superb examples of the glassblower's art. The most popular form was the stemmed variety, which went through a series of developments from the baluster stem to the air-twist, the opaque-twist (made by substituting a thread of white and/or colored glass for the air threads), and cut stems.

The smallest of three pots in George B. McClellan’s collection, the milk jug, was given by Mrs. McClellan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1941, but is undated. However, the simplicity of its decoration suggests the years from about 1760 to 1765. During this period Busch's designs were usually less elaborate, as is attested by dated pieces described by Pazaurek.

There were also "flint" decanters in a variety of forms, as well as the ever-prevalent "black-glass" bottle. There was plenty of demand in the eighteenth century for bottles, decanters, and drinking glasses. The Palace cellars were well stocked with Madeira, port, claret, "Burgandy, old Hock, Arrack, sweet syder, rum, Champaine, brandy." Syllabub was a popular drink, made, according to one of many rules, by taking "a quart of cream, not too thick, and a pint of sack, and the juice of two lemons, sweeten to your palate, and put it into a broad earthen pan, and with a whisk whip it, and as the froth rises, take it off with a spoon and lay it in your syllabub glasses, but first you must sweeten some claret or sack or white wine, and strain it and put seven or eight spoonfuls of the wine into the glasses, and then gently lay in your froth." William Byrd II of Westover summed up his opinion of this beverage when he said on one occasion "our conversation with the ladies was like whip-syllabub, very pretty but nothing in it."

Punch was another favorite drink. It was derived from India, and the name supposedly comes from the Hindustani or Persian word for five, denoting the number of ingredients - spirit, water, sugar, lemon, and spice. One of the proprietors of the Raleigh Tavern, Henry Wetherburn, served such a famous arrack punch that a bowl of it was once bartered for two hundred acres of land. At least one large punch bowl was a necessary adjunct to every well-to-do household. A particularly fine one of Oriental export porcelain is in the Apollo room of the Tavern; and there are several in the Palace, in porcelain, delftware, and silver-gilt.

Entertainment in Williamsburg was lavish. On one occasion Governor Spotswood had two hundred guests to supper, and in 1769 Lord Botetourt wrote that "fifty-two dined with me yesterday and I expect at least that number today." The amounts of wine consumed on such occasions may be gathered from entries in the inventories referring to bottles, gallons, hogsheads, and "pipes" of wine; a pipe contained approximately 105 imperial gallons.

All this entertaining called for plenty of drinking vessels, and the Palace inventories list as much glassware as china, with a long enumeration of "Glass in Pantry." Besides many decanters, wine glasses, syllabub glasses, "beer glasses" and "champaign ditto," there are such things as "23 glass salvers" and numerous "crewetts." A good deal of the glassware is "cut"; six salts are "flint." The "flowered" glasses are presumably engraved. All this glass tableware must have come from Europe, since there is no evidence that Stiegel's glass, the only comparable American ware at this time, was used at Williamsburg.

Besides the considerable variety of imported ceramic wares known to have been used in eighteenth-century Williamsburg, there was the local product. Some of the excavated fragments are of simple, often crude, earthenware, which may possibly have been made in the vicinity. All these wares are represented now in the Williamsburg buildings with examples that are not only representative but in many cases outstanding.