Keep Me Swimming

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So those renegade teenagers who spike the punch with vodka as an act of rebellion against the stuffy world of outdated respectability are actually keeping tradition alive.

Readings:
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.

 

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One Response to “Keep Me Swimming”

  1. River Gods | This Day in Pottery History Says:

    […] War – precisely when the River Gods held sway.  Delft chargers were popular, but delft punch bowls ruled.  No 18th century social gathering, regardless of social rank, was complete without a […]

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