Trencher Treen And Pewter Bright
THE history of the use of china as tableware in America would be incomplete and ill-comprehended; without some reference to the preceding forms of table furnishings used by the earliest colonists, the dishes of wood and pewter, which so long influenced the form and even the decoration of their china success-ors. As in the "Life of Josiah Wedgwood " we are given an account of the pottery and porcelain of all times, so in my story of china in America I tell of the humble predecessors that graced the frugal boards of our ancestors.
In a curious book, Newbery's " Dives Pragmaticus," written in 1563, a catalogue of English cooking-utensils and tableware is thus given by a chapman
" I have basins, ewers of tin, pewter, and glass,
These were practically the table and kitchen furnishings brought by the Pilgrims to New England, and for similar furnishings they sent to old England for many years.
The time when America was settled was the era when pewter ware had begun to take the place of wooden ware for table use, just as the time of the Revolutionary War marked the victory of porcelain over pewter. Governor Bradford found the Indians using "wooden bowls, trays, and dishes," and "hand baskets made of crab shells wrought together." Both colonists and Indians used clam-shells for plates, and smaller shells set in split sticks as spoons and ladles.
The Indians made in great quantities for their white neighbors, even in the earliest days, bowls from the knots of maple-trees that went by the name of " Indian bowls," and were much sought after and used. One large bowl taken from the wigwam of King Philip is now in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. The settlers also established factories for dish-turning.. One thrifty New England parson eked out his scanty and ill-paid salary by making wooden bowls and plates for his parishioners. Wooden " noggins," low bowls with handles, are often mentioned in early inventories, and Mary Ring, of Plymouth, thought in 1633 that a " wodden cupp " was quite valuable enough to leave " as a token of friendship."
In Vermont bowls and plates of poplar wood were used until Revolutionary times, and fair white dishes did that clean hard wood make. Sometimes the wooden plates used by the poor planters were only square blocks slightly hollowed out by hand--whittled, without doubt.
Wooden trenchers, also made by hand, were used on the table by the colonists for more than a century. I find them advertised for sale with pewter and china in the Connecticut Courant of May, 1775. These trenchers were either square or oblong. From an oblong trencher two persons, relatives or intimate friends, sometimes ate in common, just as they had done in old England. Two children frequently ate from the same trencher, thus economizing table furnishings. In earlier times man and wife ate from a single trencher or plate. Walpole relates that the aged Duke and Duchess of Hamilton, in the middle of the last century, sat upon a dais together at the head of their table and ate from the same plate—a tender tribute to unreturnable youth, a clinging regard for past customs, and a token of present affection and unity in old age.
A story is told of a Connecticut planter, that having settled in a quickly-growing town and having proved himself to be a pious God-fearing man, his name was offered to his church for election or ordination as a deacon. Objection was made to him, on the ground that he had shown undue pride and luxury of living in allowing his children each to use and eat from a single plate at the table, instead of doing as his neighbors did—have two children eat from one trencher. He apologized for his seemingly vain manner of living, and gave in excuse the fact that previous to his settlement near New Haven he had been a dish-turner, so it had not then been extravagant for the members of his family to have a dish apiece ; and having grown accustomed. to that manner of " feeding," he found it more peaceable and comfortable; but he was willing to change his ways if they considered it desirable and proper, as he did not wish to put on more airs than his neighbors.
But wooden trenchers, even in the first half of the first New England century, gave place to pewter, and the great number of pieces of pewter table-ware still found in New England country homes would alone prove to how recent a date pewter utensils were universally used. The number would doubtless be much larger if it were not deemed by metal-workers that new pewter is of much better substance if the metals composing it are combined with a certain amount of old pewter. Hence old pewter always has commanded a good price, and many fine old specimens have been melted up to mould over again for the more modern uses for which pewter is employed by printers and lapidaries.
The trade of pewterer was for two centuries a very respectable and influential one. The Guild of Pewterers in London was a very large and powerful body, and English pewterers, men of worth, came with other trades-men at once to the Colonies. Richard Graves was a pewterer of Salem in 1639, and Henry Shrimpton, an influential merchant who died in Boston in 1666, made large quantities of pewter ware for the Massachusetts colonists. The pewterers rapidly increased in numbers in America, until the War of Independence, when, of course, the increasing importation of Oriental and English china and stone ware, and the beauty and interest of the new table - ware, destroyed forever the pewterer's trade. Advertisements of pewter table-furnishings appear frequently, however, in American newspapers until well into this century.
Nor was it different in England at the same date. Englishmen and Englishwomen clung long to pewter. In a poem written in 1828 by J. Ward, of Stoke - upon - Trent, upon the Potter's Art, he says :
"The housewife, prim in days we know ourselves,
It is a curious fact that in the inventory of the house-hold possessions of Thomas Wedgwood, the potter, made at Burslem in 1775, we find that he had forty-four pew-ter plates worth seven pence half penny each, and twenty-four pewter dishes worth two shillings each, though the inventory of the goods at his factory at that time included two hundred and ninety-five dozen table plates of best white ware.
At a very early date all well-to-do colonists had plenty of "latten ware," which was brass, as well as pewter. All kinds of household utensils were made, however, of the latter metal ; even "pewter bottles, pints, and quarts," were upon a list of goods to be sent from England to the Massachusetts Colony in 1629. I have never seen an old pewter bottle, even in a collection or museum, and they must soon have been superseded by glass.
In the Boston Evening Post of July 26, 1756, appeared this advertisement : " London pewter dishes, plates, basons, porringers, breakfast bowls, table spoons, pint and quart pots, cans, tankards, butter cups, newest fashion teapots, table salts, sucking bottles, plates & dish covers, cullenders, soop kettles, new fashion roased plates, communion beakers and flagons, & measures." A vast number of names of other articles might be added from other lists of sales of pewter at that time—" quart & pint jacks," " bottle crains," " ink pots,". " ink chests," "inkhorns," " ink standishes," and ink jugs."
Pewter "cans for beer, cyder, and metheglin," were in every household ; pewter mugs and pewter " dram-cups with funnels," pewter " basons," cisterns, and ewers graced the " parlour," which contained also the best state bed, with its " harrateen " or " Cheney " curtains. Pewter candlesticks held the home-made, pale-green candles of tallow and spicy bayberry wax. " Savealls,' too, were of pewter and iron. " Savealls " were the little round frames with wire points which held up the last short ends of dying candles for our frugal ancestors.
Salt-cellars and spoons were of pewter, while extremely elegant people had spoons of alchymy, or occonny, alcaney, alcamy, occomy, ackamy, and accamy, as I have seen it spelt, a -metal composed of pan brass and arsenicum. Forks were almost unknown, and fingerg' played an important part in serving and eating at the table. A lady traveller, in 1704, spoke with much scorn of Connecticut people, because they allowed their negro slaves to sit and eat at the same table with themselves, saying that into the great dish goes the black hoof as freely as the white hand."
Pewter porringers, or " pottingers," of every size were much prized. One family, in 166o, had seven porringers, while another housewife was proud of owning nine, and one silver queen porringer. The smaller porringers were called osnets, a word now obsolete. Posnet was derived from a Welsh word,posned, a little round dish. In these posnets posset was served, and they were also used as pap-bowls for infants. Posnets and porringers, when not in use, were hung by their handles on the edge of the dresser shelf. The porringers with flat pierced handles are of English or American make, while the "fish-tail" handles are seldom found in New England, being distinctly Dutch.
Plates and platters were much valued. Governor Bradford, of Massachusetts, left to his heirs fourteen pewter dishes and thirteen platters, three large plates and three small ones, one pewter candlestick and one pewter bottle—a most luxurious and elaborate house-hold outfit. Governor Benedict Arnold, of Jamestown, R. I., and Mr. Pyncheon, of Springfield, Mass., bequeathed their pewter plates and dishes in the same list, and with as much minuteness of description, as the silver tankards and bowls, and the humble pewter was as elaborately lettered and marked with armorial devices as was the silver. Miles Standish left to his heirs sixteen pewter dishes and twelve wooden trenchers.
Pewter was not thought to be too base a metal to use for communion services. In 1729, the First Church of Hanover, Mass., bought and used for years a full communion service and christening basin of pewter ; and the bill of purchase and the old pieces are still preserved by the church as relics. The pewter communion service of the Marblehead Church is now in the rooms of the Essex Institute, and until this century advertisements of " Pewter Communion Flagons " appeared in New England newspapers.
These pewter dishes and plates were a source of great pride to every colonial housekeeper, and much time and labor was devoted to polishing them with " horsetails " (equisetum), or "scouring rush," till they shone like fine silver; and dingy pewter was fairly counted a disgrace. The most accomplished gentleman in Virginia, of his time, gave it as a positive rule, in 1728, that "pewter bright was the sign of a good housewife.
In some old country homes, either lack of money, the power of habit, or the strong love of ancient articles and associations, caused the preservation of the old pewter utensils, and they now form the cherished ornaments of the kitchen and dining-room. In the lovely old town of Shrewsbury, which stands so high on Massachusetts hills that the railroad has never approached its lonely beauty, there stands on the edge of the " Common " a house, in which everything that is good and old has been preserved, and appears as when the house was built, in the year 1779.
The old fireplaces have cranes and iron dogs," are festooned with ears of yellow seed-corn, and are surmounted by the old fire-arms, while by the. chimney sides are hung old-fashioned brooms of peeled birch. These brooms are made of birch splints, carefully split and peeled, and tied in place with hempen twine on the strong handle; and many a farmer's boy, years ago, earned his first spending money by making them, for six cents apiece, for the country stores. Old settles, chairs, and tables stand on the white-scoured floors; and in the "living-room" is a piece of furniture seldom seen in New England, though common enough in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey in olden times—a " slaw bank." The word is a corruption of sloap bancke, or sleeping bench, and the slaw bank was the great-grandfather of our modern cabinet folding-bed. At one end of the room are doors apparently belonging to cupboards, which, upon being swung wide open, disclose the oblong frame of a bed with a network of ropes to serve as springs. This bed-frame is fastened at one end to the wall with heavy hinges, and was hooked up against the wall in the day-time, and at night was lowered to a horizontal position and supported on heavy wooden turned legs, which fitted into sockets in the frame; and it was thus ready for use. This bed is still kept made up as of old, with hand-spun linen sheets, hand-woven " flannel sheets," a " rising-sun " patchwork quilt, and blue and white woollen bedspread.
But in the dining-room and kitchen of this old Shrews-bury homestead are the greatest treasures-corner cup-boards and shallow dressers full of pewter dishes, which greet their owner with " shining morning faces" at breakfast, and reflect in a hundred silvery disks the goodly cheer on his table at midday and night. Round plates and platters are there of every size, up to the great round shield on which was placed of old the enormous Thanksgiving turkey. All are round, for oval platters seem to have been then unknown.
The deep bowls, in which vegetables were served, stand there in " nests " of various sizes. Teapots, too, and cream-pitchers and sugar-bowls, or sugar-boxes, but no pewter teacups. I believe the little handleless teacups were among the earliest pieces of porcelain imported from China, and were often used when the rest of the " tea equipage" was of pewter. Pewter salt-cellars, mustard-pots, flip-mugs, and syrup-cups are interspersed among the larger pieces on the dresser.
Some of these articles are marked with initials and dates, not engraved, but stamped, as with a die, J. S. and B. K., 1769. Doubtless these were wedding gifts, and I doubt not that a set of shining pewter plates and platters was as graceful and welcome a gift to Betsey Sumner in 1769, as is a set of Royal Worcester porcelain to her great-granddaughter Bessie, in 1892.
Some of the teapots are really beautiful in shape, arid are decorated with a quaint engraved design of leaves and round flowers. These were undoubtedly of Dutch manufacture, and are identical in shape and ornamentation with teapots authentically known to have been imported from Holland. These teapots were probably used for company " tea drinkings " and such state occasions, and thus the engraving on the soft metal was not worn by daily use.
Pewter spoons, too, are there in every size, though Betsey Sumner surely had silver teaspoons, for were they not inherited from her by her son, the old parson ? As these pewter spoons were liable to be quickly bent, worn, or broken, every thrifty household had its various sized spoon moulds of heavy metal, into which the melted pewter was poured and came out as good as new, or, according to the apparent law of pewter, better than new. Button moulds, too, were common enough, containing deep holes to form half a dozen buttons at once. And perhaps Betsey Sumner turned her old spoons into buttons to adorn John's coat, and polished them till they shone like the silver and cut-steel buttons of the French Court.
Many of the pewter articles in this homestead have had recently engraved upon the underside various commemorative dates, and the names of past owners, and the outlines of any eventful story connected with the dish, if story there fortunately be remembered to tell. And every owner of pewter plate or porringer, who knows by tradition the story of his old relic, should have the statement engraved now upon the back of the piece, for even in one generation these facts are forgotten, and the article is rendered valueless as an historic record.
In the kitchen of the great colonial house at Morris-town, N. J., now owned and occupied by the Washington Association of New Jersey, may be seen a fine collection of old pewter table and cooking utensils ; while at Indian Hill, at Newburyport, still is shining in cupboard and dresser the rare pewter collected by Ben Perley Poore.
To a day well within the remembrance of many now living, round pewter meat platters were used in farm-houses, long after the other pewter dishes had vanished ; for it does not dull a carving-knife to cut upon pewter. as it does upon porcelain or crockery, and old farmers cling stubbornly to usages and articles that they are acquainted with ; and no "boiled dinner" ever could taste quite the same to them unless all heaped together on a great shining-pewter platter.
Another pewter piece often found, and often still used, is the hot-water jug with its wicker-covered handle. This was brought every night, in colonial and Revolutionary times, well filled with boiling water, to the master of the house, for him to mix the hot apple-toddy or sangaree for the members of his household, who drank their share out of pewter cups or heavy greenish glasses. I know of two of these pewter jugs which have been in daily use for certainly forty years (though in the more temperate vocation of hot-water jugs to carry shaving-water to the bedrooms), and still retain, sound and firm, the old wicker coverings on the handles, which may have been woven upon them a hundred years ago. Truly, our grandfathers made things for use, not for sale.
Strange hiding-places have these old forsaken and forgotten pewter dishes. They lurk in tall and narrow cupboards by the side of old chimneys, or in short and deep cupboards over- the mantel. They lie in disused fireplaces, hidden from view by. gaudy modern fire-boards. They are at the bottom of deep boxes under wide window-seats, and are shoved under the dusty eaves of dark attic-lofts. On the highest pantry shelves, under cellar stairs, in old painted sea-chests, in the woodhouse, are they found. From the floor of hen-houses have they been rescued, where they have been long ignominiously trodden under foot by high-stepping and imperious fowl.
Let us take them from these obscure corners, and pre-serve them with care, for though they have no intrinsic value like silver, no brilliancy like glass, no beauty of color or design like china, they are still worthy our interest and attention, for they were the first table ware used by our ancestors. We are a young nation of few years and few relics, let us then reverently preserve the old pewter plates and platters, remembering that these simple dishes of inexpensive metal illustrate the frugal home-life of the men and women who were the founders of the Republic.
( Originally Published Early 1900's )