Student view:

Jeff Painter: Aren’t bowls just bowls?

Dec. 14, 2016

Jeff Painter is a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology in the College of Social Science 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.

As part of my ongoing research project for Campus Archaeology, I have been focusing so far on the dinnerware 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 1860s, 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.)

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.

old plates and pieces of plates

"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 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. They 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 and bowl fragments

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.

Tureen – Larger, kettle-shaped vessels with two handles instead of a spout that comes 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 up-curved 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. Teacups 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!

Reused with permission from the MSU Campus Archaeology Program