Written by: Jeff Painter
Primary Source: MSU Campus Archaeology Program, September 20, 2016
On university campuses, all sorts of different items are present. One type of item that is commonly found but under-utilized are industrial ceramics. Also known as hotel wares, hotel china, or restaurant china, these ceramics are designed to be extremely tough and cheap, perfect for enterprises feeding a large number of people every day. Besides aspects of technology, these seemingly simple objects can provide archaeologists with an impressive amount of information, especially on a university campus with a deep history, such as Michigan State’s.
Developed sometime around the 1870’s and 1880’s in the United States, institutional wares are a vitrified and improved white stoneware, meaning that this type of ceramic is fired at a very high temperature, making it more glass-like or porcelain-like. Despite its glassier nature, these ceramics are extremely durable and do not break easily. Since they act more like glass, they are also less porous and do not absorb as many tiny food particles or oils, making them ideal for repeated and frequent use.
While some may see the presence of these wares on MSU’s campus as only signaling that, yes indeed, MSU fed lots of people every day, they can actually tell us much more. Archaeologically, hotel wares contain a number of small but time sensitive aspects, such as the development of a rolled rim in 1896, which can make them useful time markers that are helpful in dating archaeological assemblages found on campus. Beyond this simple application, they can also help inform us about changes in how students were provisioned on campus, and about the balancing act that is a university economy.
Students on campus have not always been supplied with everything food-related that they would need. They also did not always live in massive dorms full of hundreds of people. At the beginning of MSU, when the university was small and hotel wares were only an idea, student labor ruled as a way for the university to remain self-sufficient and also under-budget. Students also provided many of their own living items as they came to the university. At what point then, and why, did it become more economical to begin buying these ceramics to provision a growing student body? This is one question that these ceramics can aid in answering.
Institutional wares can also help us to recreate the student and faculty experience thru time at MSU. What was meal-time like for these students before giant cafeterias full of different restaurants became the locations for students to eat, socialize, or occasionally do some school work? For faculty as well, who could afford more refined tastes in dishware, did all faculty have the same access to nicer dinnerware or did some also make use of institutional wares as a way to stay under-budget themselves?
These items also do not remain undecorated, but are instead found with specific designs in specific colors. After 1908, when a method for decoration was adapted that did not weaken the glaze of these ceramics, institutional wares became increasingly customizable. This turned them not only into a utensil for eating, but a tool for branding as well. At MSU, we commonly see white dishes with bands of green near the rim, matching the university colors. As students would have interacted with these dishes almost every day, this may have been a subtle attempt to unify the student body behind a university brand that was, and still is, symbolized by those colors, green and white.
All of these are topics that institutional ceramics can help us to explore, topics that are critical for understanding how large institutions, such as a university, evolve through time, and how the experiences of those involved evolved with it.
2016 The Significance of Hotel-Ware Ceramics in the Twentieth Century” Historical Archaeology Vol. 50 Iss. 2 (2016) p. 110 – 126.