Messenger - Vol. 3, No. 1, Page 11
Fall 1993
On Campus
Discarded dinnerware gives glimpse of the past

     Ceramics and glass found at archaeological sites can unlock the past,
giving insights about the people who once lived there, says a material
culture researcher at the University's Center for Archaeological Research.
     George L. Miller is an expert on glassware and ceramics, including
tea, table, kitchen and toilet wares used in the United States from the
mid-1700s until the 1930s. Under a $35,000 archaeological research grant
from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), he is studying
English and American ceramics, particularly white graniteware (also called
white ironstone), which was popular in the United States from 1846-1917.
     Through evaluation and price indexing, archaeologists and historians
can more accurately compare and date sites and study consumer buying habits
of different levels of society.
     Unlike wood, paper and fabric, which tend to disintegrate when buried,
ceramics and glassware, although easily broken, survive well in the ground,
Miller says. Once ceramics and glass from a site have been identified and
dated, Miller has devised an index, which can be used to establish each
item's average cost. The index provides a useful tool for archaeologists
and historians studying past consumer behavior.
     "The ceramics and glass found at a site give some indication of the
economic circumstances of the family who lived there, whether they were
wealthy landowners, merchants or tenant farmers," Miller says.
     Ceramics also help to establish the time frame of an excavation
because it is frequently possible to date pieces and identify their origin,
Miller says. For example, teacups in the late 18th century were small and
without handles and differed from coffee cups. But, by the late 19th
century, the two merged into one style of a larger cup with a handle.
     Pointing to a photograph of a collection of bottles found in two,
filled-up wells near Leipsic, Del., Miller says, "We can tell certain
things about the families who occupied this site. In one well, we found
old, handmade bottles from the late 19th century, which contained mostly
baking powder, patent medicines and blueing used to whiten laundry. From
these bottles, we can deduct that the family did their own baking and own
     "The other well contained a larger variety of machine-made bottles,
which contained prescription medicine, bleaches, inks and cosmetics from
the 1930s. This family was more sophisticated in their consumer choices,
did not do their own baking and sought medical advice for their illnesses."
     Until the mid-18th century, the most common ceramic ware was a
tin-glazed delftware, replaced in popularity in the 1780s by Josiah
Wedgwood's creamware, Miller says. Wedgwood furnished Catherine the Great
with a 960-piece set of creamware, which he renamed queensware.
Graniteware, or ironstone, became the pottery of choice from the 1840s
until around World War I.
     Until the Civil War, most china, including tea, table, kitchen and
toilet wares, was imported from England. High tariffs and a poor exchange
rate for United States greenbacks against British pounds drove up the cost
of imported ceramics, and English potters emigrated from Staffordshire to
start up potteries in East Liverpool, Ohio, and Trenton, N.J.
     For a previous study, Miller used creamware as the basis of his
classification system of index values from 1787-1880.
     Miller is collecting invoices of wares from England and copies of
price-fixing lists from Staffordshire and East Liverpool, Ohio, to compile
index values of white graniteware. He also is using invoices for ceramics
sold to country stores and, later, the catalogs from mail-order houses,
such as Sears Roebuck.
     Miller, who most recently was at Colonial Williamsburg, joined the
faculty last spring.
                                                  -Sue Swyers Moncure