Aren’t Bowls Just Bowls? Not for the First Students at MSU

Written by: Jeff Painter

Primary Source:  MSU Campus Archaeology Program, December 1, 2016

As part of my on-going research project for Campus Archaeology, I have been focusing so far on the dinner wares from the early period of the campus (1855-1870).  These dishes, which come in many shapes and sizes, have greatly informed our understanding of meal times and how students dined on a Victorian Era campus, as well as the lessons they learned from such practices.  Like many of you, while I can understand the overall picture of what these meals were like, I have little knowledge of the role individual dishes played.  Until now.  As a prehistoric archaeologist focusing on the function of ceramic vessels, it is only natural that I return to my roots and explore how the dishes that we have recovered on campus functioned within the context of these meals.

As a graduate student who subsists primarily on ramen, pizza, and quesadillas, I own two sizes of plates, and one size of bowl for my meals, alongside one or two larger plates and bowls for serving food.  Suffice it to say that when we stumbled upon archival records of the types of dishes owned by the university in the 1860’s, I had no idea what many of the names represented.  After some digging, I came upon some sources related to the etiquette of table settings.  These provide not only the names of various dishes, but some general descriptions of their shapes and dimensions and how they were used, perfect for young archaeologists ignorant of the finer details of polite society.  While most of these sources are from the mid-twentieth century, a few decades after the height of the Victorian Era, I think it is safe to project these descriptions back in time as etiquette surrounding dinner parties and other such events seems to have changed little during this time gap.

I will now transport you back to MSU’s campus in 1861, where you are a student and I am the steward of the campus boarding hall.  Today, your lesson is on the proper use of dinnerware for entertaining and how certain dishes are to be used (Imagine your own fancy time-travel montage here).

Boarding Hall Inventory April 1861. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Boarding Hall Inventory April 1861. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Dinner Plates- A plate that averages 9.5 inches in diameter, it is the most common dish                 and is used to serve the main course at any meal.  In formal place settings, it                       forms the central focus.

Bread Plates- This smaller plate is used for eating and holding bread and butter.  It is                     meant to isolate bread so that sauces or juices from other food items do not make               the bread saturated and unsatisfactory.  It is typically located to the top left of the                 dinner plate within place settings.

Tea plates- This is a smaller plate, around 7 inches in diameter, that can have multiple                     purposes. It can be used in the absence of a saucer to hold a tea or coffee cup,                 but can also be used to hold bread or dessert items as well.

"Berlin Swirl" Plates recovered from West Circle Privy dating to 1860s.

“Berlin Swirl” Plates recovered from West Circle Privy dating to 1860s.

Soup plates- A larger, shallow dish with an average diameter of around 9 inches and has a wide rim.  One is on average 1.5 inches deep.  In appearances, this dish is like the             combination of a plate and a bowl, and is used to serve thicker, chunkier soups                   and stews that retain heat well and consequently, do not need to be as insulated.

Bowls- Of a similar size and shape to soup plates, bowls are deeper, averaging closer to               2 inches in depth.  These are used to serve creamier, broth-like soups, as well as               some dishes that are eaten with a fork, such as pasta.

Fruit Saucer- These small dishes average around 4 to 6 inches in diameter and are round             1 inch deep, with a narrow yet pronounced rim.  Often used to serve fruit or other               food items with sauces or juices, this dish is meant to keep those juices isolated                 from the other parts of the meal.

Bowls recovered from West Circle Privy and Saints Rest Rescue. Left to right: Floral Design, Davenport Scalloped Decagonal, and Wedgwood Fig. All date to 1850s-1860s.

Bowls recovered from West Circle Privy and Saints Rest Rescue. Left to right: Floral Design, Davenport Scalloped Decagonal, and Wedgwood Fig. All date to 1850s-1860s.

Profile view of bowls.

Profile view of bowls.

Tureen- Larger, kettle-shaped vessels with two handles instead of a spout that come with a ladle.  These are used to serve soups or other liquefied dishes into smaller                       individual vessels such as soup plates, and are often decorative pieces meant to               catch the eye of those dining.

Tea/coffee cups and saucers- small cups averaging around 3 inches in height and                         diameter, which are coupled with small plates with upcurved edges and a small                   well that is perfectly designed to hug the base of the cup.  Saucers average around             6 inches in diameter and 1 inch deep.  Used to serve hot and slightly warm                         beverages, most versions of these vessels owned by MSU are more suited for                   coffee, as they are more cylindrical in order to better hold in the heat of the                           beverage.  Tea cups are often wider with a more flared rim, as tea is typically                       served slightly cooled.

Berlin Swirl handless cup and matching saucer. Recovered from West Circle Privy

Berlin Swirl handless cup and matching saucer. Recovered from West Circle Privy.

While not exhaustive, these descriptions provide clear examples of the functional specialization inherent in these different vessels and in how they were used.  It is no surprise that such dinner sets were a hallmark of the middle and upper classes, as owning a set of dishes, including all the specialized parts, that could feed a family of five or six would require more money than many people could afford at this time.  Such specialization was not limited to plates and bowls either, but also included drinking vessels and the silverware.  Be glad I did not decide to explore the differences between the fish fork, the fruit fork, the dessert fork, and the salad fork!

 

Sources:

Biddle, Dorothy, and Dorothea Blom
1936   The Book of Table Setting.  Doubleday, Doran, and Company, Inc., New York.

Goldman, Mary E.
1959   Planning and Serving Your Meals.  McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York.

MSU Archives & Historical Collections: Kuhn Collection Volume 91. Agricultural Boarding         Hall.

Sprackling, Helen
1960   The New Setting Your Table: Its Art, Etiquette, and Service.  M. Barrows and                Company, New York.

Yellowstone Publishing, LLC
2015   Etiquette Scholar: Etiquette Encyclopedia.  Electronic document,

http://www.etiquettescholar.com/index.html, accessed November 30, 2016.

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Jeff Painter
Jeff Painter is a third year Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology, with a focus in prehistoric archaeology in the Midwest and Eastern Woodlands. Specifically, he focuses on interaction and foodways in late prehistory and the function and use of ceramic vessels in the past. This is his first year as a CAP fellow and he plans on exploring the role of institutional ceramics at MSU as well as the ceramics found in the Gunson House trash pit excavations from summer 2015.