Posts Tagged ‘Rennaisance’

Kublai Khan

May 23, 2010

In 1271 Kublai Khan, grandson of the legendary Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan, invaded China, ended the Northern Sung Dynasty, and set up his own Yuan Dynasty.  And if you look on your kitchen shelves today, you might well see cans of soups, beans and other food items.

Admittedly, the ubiquitous modern tin can would probably have been invented regardless of the activities of rampaging Medieval horsemen from the Asian Steppes.  But seen through the lens of pottery history, the tin can embodies a curious echo of that far distant past.

Here’s how it went (pared down to four easy paragraphs):
1)  Apart from conquering and pillaging, the Mongols excelled in organizing vast stretches of territory.  Among other things, they exported Chinese pharmacological lore to the far reaches of their empire, in this case Arabia.  These medicinal herbs were stored in ceramic cylinders, often ‘wasp waisted’ for easy withdrawal from shelves (the Chinese originally used bamboo containers) and indented near the rim to facilitate a fabric tied around the top.

2)  The Arabs knew a good thing when they saw one, or two; the medicine and the jars.  They made their own versions of both, which in turn became popular in Renaissance Italy.  Once again, various Italian cities formed an entire industry around these “Albarelos.”  The Victoria Albert Museum in London has a fabulous collection of Italian tin glazed, enameled drug jars.

3)  Albarelos spread throughout Europe.  They spawned the Delftware industry in Holland.  And they eventually arrived in England as “gallipots,” named, some believe, after the manner of their transport – on large Venetian Galleys, or perhaps as containers commonly found in ships’ galleys.  (Others used the term to denote Delftware, others still just took it to mean anything made out of clay…)  Anyway, the English took gallipots to their new colonies in North America, where they were made well into the 19th century.

American Gallipot by Stephen Earp Redware4)  Being such a generic, therefore useful, shape, the American gallipot took on many roles, from storing drugs, to cooking, to preserving.  Ultimately, the mid 19th century expansion of the glass jar industry replaced the gallipot, or “corker” as it was called by then.  And from the glass jar, it was a short walk to the nearest dry goods grocer for the late century tin can revolution…

…I suppose you could say that the modern re-useable yogurt container is the latest incarnation of this journey begun by Kublai Khan.

But that would be ridiculous.

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

Early New England Potters and Their Wares.  Lura Woodside Watkins.  Harvard Press/Boston.  1968.

A Descriptive Dictionary for 500 Years of Spanish-Tradition Ceramics. 13th through 19th Cenuries.  Florence and Robert Lister ed.s.  Special Publication Series, Number 1/The Society for Historical Archeology.  1980.

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