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Early American Wooden Ware

The first American settlers were not burdened with the care of fine china, silver, or even glass for their table settings. Nor had they been accustomed to them in the homes they had left. They lived in an age of wood. Among the few material things they brought with them were square wooden plates, known as trenchers, and platters, bowls, and spoons.

In the new land, plenty of wood was to be had for the taking and after the first rude shelters were built, each householder could set about adding to this assortment of table and kitchen ware. American-made trenchers were round, done on that very old tool, the lathe. Dishes of shapes that could not be so fashioned were executed by hand with knife and adze.

Because all these wooden dishes were more or less handmade and not too plentiful, a change of plates consisted of turning one's trencher over and using the reverse side, a custom brought from early seventeenth-century England where the square trencher had such effete details as a hollowed out center for food, an indentation in one corner for salt, and quite often a lettered inscription as a finish around the square. This survives today in the "Give us this day our daily bread" inscriptions on bread plates of glass, china, or wood. Other wooden tableware included bowls of various sizes from the salt dish to the large one, either round or oval, which held the main dish of the meal; wooden mugs, known as noggins, used as the common drinking cup in an age when the word "germ" was unknown; and bread boards, used for slicing the loaf of bread at the table.

Possibly the greatest variety occurred in bowls. Their usefulness was not confined to the table since they also did duty as working tools, especially the large sizes which were used either as chopping bowls or as serving dishes. There were also wash bowls, shaped like the earthenware ones of later date. Woods used for these bowls included maple, birch, walnut, cherry, and sometimes lignum-vitae, brought back from the West Indies and fashioned into bowls by sailors in their spare time.

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