Archive for December, 2010

Keep Me Swimming

December 19, 2010

It came from India.  The name did, anyway.  And the recipe.  The Hindustani word which entered England as “Punch” meant “five,”indicating the number of ingredients for this wildly popular drink.  The five ingredients were alcohol (usually rum), fruit juice (usually lemons), spice (usually nutmeg), sugar and water.  Sailors in the East India trade brought punch home during the 17th century.  Punch soon joined posset, (milk with mulled wine), sack (sherry), and bishop (mulled wine) in the pantheon of English drinks.

The array of ingredients allowed for a broad variety of punch recipes.  Water was a major variable.  Less meant more, well, punch.  Drinking punch was not a ‘sedate’ activity.  It could be drank at home, but was standard fare in any tavern.  Punch’s popularity rivaled that other paradigm-shifting drink from the east, tea.  But tea was enjoyed in small individual bowls.  “A dish of tea,” as the saying went (the annoying, teeny handle was added later).  Punch, however, was passed around in a communal bowl.

The variety of punch bowls was huge.  From 6 inches in diameter to larger than one person alone could lift.  They were made in almost every type of ceramic available at the time from earthenware and delft to stoneware and porcelain.  The prowess of Chinese potters who made 20 plus inch diameter porcelain punch bowls astounded European potters.  Reputations were built on both the quantity of bowls collected and the quality of punch served.  Lord Fairfax of present day Fairfax County, Maryland kept a collection of over 20 Chinese porcelain punch bowls.

Punch bowl decoration followed the tastes of the day.  Although the image of a fish on the inside bottom of a bowl was a sure indication of it’s purpose.  The fish was often accompanied by such sayings as “Keep me swimming,” or “The longer I swim, the happier I’ll be.”

Toward the end of the 18th century, a set of individual cups became standard accessories.  The introduction of such refinements seems to have taken the fun out of punch.  It’s hard to shout “another bowl then!” in a room full of cup sipping gentlemen in powdered wigs without sounding a touch barbaric.  Punch had begun it’s long decent into the tame world of art receptions and high school dances.

So those renegade teenagers who spike the punch with vodka as an act of rebellion against the stuffy world of outdated respectability are actually keeping tradition alive.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Continental Pottery and Porcelain. Reginald Haggar.  Hawthorn Books/New York.  1960.

Ceramics in America (1972).  Quimby, Ian, Ed.  University Press of Virginia/Charlottesville.

China-Trade Porcelain. John Goldsmith Phillips.  Harvard University Press/Cambridge, MA.  1956.

If These Pots Could Talk. Ivor Noël Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.

Unearthing New England’s Past: The Ceramic Evidence. Exhibition Catalogue.  Museum of Our National Heritage/Lexington, MA. 1984.


Things You Can Do With A Horse

December 1, 2010

One of the pivotal breakthroughs for the Stoke-on-Trent potteries during the mid 18th century was the addition of calcined flint to their clay bodies.  The immediate effect was to whiten the clay.  But this small step opened up previously unimaginable vistas.

Potters began thinking ‘hey, we can do anything.’  And they meant, literally, anything.  They were no longer constrained by the materials at hand as they were.  Mind bending inventions tumbled one after another relating to how materials were processed, how the pottery was produced, and even how it was all moved around the country and the globe.

In just a few short decades, they went from digging clay in the back yard, plopping it on a home made wheel, burning it in a little kiln, and walking around the district peddling it, to setting up a factory for mass produced and machine lathed precise forms, creating an entire supply chain of raw materials to feed the beast, and an international network of sales outlets.

It might seem a stupid comparison, but it really wasn’t much different than the progress in computerized gadgetry since the 1990’s.  We’ve traveled pretty far since then.  And in the mid 1700’s the Staffordshire potters made a similar quantum leap.

So about that horse.  It could be just another apocryphal legend, but like they say in the world of journalism – it’s too good to check.

Staffordshire potter Robert Astbury (if you believe Josiah Wedgwood) or Joshua Heath (if you believe Simeon Shaw) was on his way to London when the horse he was riding developed a stye in its eye.  He stopped at a Dunstable inn (or maybe it was in Banbury) where the hosteller put some flint into a fire until it was red hot.  He then easily ground it into a fine powder and blew some into the horses eye.  The horse could see the road now.  But Astbury saw how white the flint became and how easily it was ground to a powder.  As soon as he returned home, he put some calcined flint into his clay body.  Whiteware, and all that followed, was born…

We get our inspiration from all over.

Staffordshire Pottery and Its History. Josiah Wedgwood.  McBride, Nast & Co/New York.  1913.

The Rise of the Staffordshire Potteries. John Thomas.  Augustus Kelly Publishers/New York.  1971.