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IN the early days of the colonies doubtless the old Anglo-Saxon board laid on trestles was used for a dining-table instead of a table with a stationary top. "Table bords" appear in early New England wills, and "trestles" also. "Long tables" and "drawing tables" were next named. A "long table" was used as a dining-table, and, from the frequent appearance of two forms with it, was evidently used from both sides, and not in the ancient fashion of the diners sitting at one side only. A drawing-table was an extension-table; it could by an arrangement of drop leaves be doubled in length. A fine one can be seen in the rooms of the Connecticut Historical Society. Chair tables were the earliest example, in fact the prototype, of some of our modern extraordinary "combination" furniture. The tops were usually round, and occasionally large enough to be used as a dining-table, and when turned over by a hinge arrangement formed the back of the chair. "Hundred legged" tables had flaps at either end which turned down or were held up in place by a bracket composed of a number of turned perpendicular supports which gave to it the name of "hundred legs." These tables were frequently very large; a portion of the top of one in the Connecticut Historical Society is seven feet four inches wide. Tea-tables came with tea; they were advertised in the Boston News Letter in 1712. Occasionally we find mention of a curious and unusual table, such as the one named in the effects of Sir Francis Bernard, which were sold September 11, 1770: "Three tables forming a horseshoe for the benefit of the Fire."
As a table was in early days a board, so a tablecloth was a board-cloth; and ere it was a tablecloth it was table-clothes. Cristowell Gallup, in 1655, had "1 Holland board-cloth;" and William Metcalf, in 1644, had a "diaper board-cloth." Another Boston citizen had "broad-clothes." Henry Webb, of Boston, named in his will, in 1660, his "beste Suite of Damask Table-cloath, Napkins & cupboard-cloath." Others had holland tablecloths and holland square cloths with lace on them. Arras tablecloths are also named in 1654, and cloths enriched with embroidery in colors. The witch Ann Hibbins had "1 Holland table cloth edged with blewe," worth twelve shillings; and a Hartford gentleman had, in 1689, a "table Cloth wrought with red." In 1728 "Hukkbuk Tabling" was advertised in the New England Weekly Journal, but the older materials — damask, holland, and diaper — were universally used then, as now.
The colonists had plenty of napkins, as had all well-to-do and well-bred Englishmen at that date. Napkins appear in all the early inventories. In 1668 the opulent Jane Humphreys, of Dorchester, left "two wrought Napkins with no lace around it," "half a duzzen of napkins," and "napkins wrought about and laced." In 1680 Robert Adams had six "diaper knapkins." Captain Tyng had in 1653 four dozen and a half of napkins, of which two dozen were of "layd worke." It has been said that these napkins were handkerchiefs, not table napkins; but I think the way they are classed in inventories does not so indicate. For instance, in the estate of Captain Corwin, a wealthy man, who died in Salem in 1685, was a "suit of Damask 1 Table cloth, 18 napkins, 1 Towel," valued at A. Occasionally, however, they are specially designated as "pocket napkins," as in the estate of Elizabeth Cutter in 1663, where four are valued at one shilling.
Early English books on table manners, such as "The Babees Boke" and "The Boke of Nurture," though minute in detail, yet name no other table-furniture than cups, chafing-dishes, chargers, trenchers, salt-cellars, knives, and spoons. The table plenishings of the planters were somewhat more varied, but still simple; when our Pilgrim fathers landed at Plymouth, the collection of tableware owned by the entire band was very meagre. With the exception of a few plate-silver tankards and drinking-cups, it was also very inexpensive. The silver was handsome and heavy, but items of silver in the earliest inventories are rare. By the beginning of the eighteenth century silver became plentiful, and the wills even of humble folk contain frequent mentions of it. Ministers, doctors, and magistrates had many handsome pieces. By the middle of the century a climax was reached, as in the possessions of Peter Faneuil, when pieces of furniture were of solid silver.
The salt-cellar was the focus of the old-time board. In earlier days, in England, to be seated above or below the salt plainly spoke the social standing of a guest. The "standing salt" was often the handsomest furnishing of the table, the richest piece of family plate. Comfort Starr, of Boston, had, in 1659, a "greate Siluer-gilt double Saltceller." Isaac Addington bequeathed by will his "Bigges Siluer Sewer & Salt." A sewer was a salver. As we note by the list of Judith Sewall's wedding furniture in 1720, standing salts were out of date, and "trencher saltcellars" were in fashion. Four dozen was a goodly number, and evinced an intent of bounteous hospitality. These trencher-salts were of various shapes and materials: "round and oval pillar-cut Salts, Bonnet Salts, 3 Leg'd Salts," were all of glass; others were of pewter, china, hard metal, and silver.
The greater number of spoons owned by the colonists were of pewter or of alchymy — or alcamyne, ocamy, odany, orkanie, alcamy, or occonie — a metal composed of pan brass and arsenicum. The reference in inventories, enrolments, and wills, to spoons of these materials are so frequent, so ever-present, as to make citation superfluous. An evil reputation of poisonous unhealthfuluess hung around the vari-spelled alchymy. (perhaps it is only a gross libel of succeeding generations); but, harmful or harmless, alchymy, no matter how spelt, disappears from use before Revolutionary times. Wooden spoons also are named. Silver spoons were not very plentiful. John Oxenbridge bequeathed thirteen spoons in 1673, and "one sweetmeat spoon," and "1 childs spoon which was mine in my infancy." Other pap-spoons and caudle-spoons are named in wills; marrow-spoons also, long and slender of bowl. The value of a dozen silver spoons was given in 1689 as £5 13s. 6d. In succeeding years each genteel family owned silver spoons, frequently in large number; while one Boston physician, Dr. Cutter, had, in 1761, half a dozen gold teaspoons.
Forks, or "tines," for cooking purposes, and "prongs" or "grains" or "evils" for agricultural purposes, were imported at early dates; but I think Governor Winthrop had the first table-fork ever brought to America. In 1633, when forks were rare in England, he received a letter from E. Howes, saying that the latter had sent to him a "case containing an Irish skeayne or knife, a bodekyn & a forke for the useful applycation of which I leave to your discretion." I am strongly suspicious that Winthrop's discretion may not have been educated up to usefully applying the fork for feeding purposes at the table. In the inventory of the possessions of Antipas Boyes (made in 1669) a silver spoon, fork, and knife are mentioned. Dr. Lyon gives the names of seven New Englanders whose inventories date from 1671 to 1693, and who owned forks. In 1673 Parson Oxenbridge had "one forked spoon," and his widow had two silver forks. Iron forks were used in the kitchen, as is shown in the inventory of Zerubbabel Endicott in 1683. And three-tined iron forks were stuck into poor witch-ridden souls in Salem by William Morse-his Daemon.
In 1718 Judge Sewall gave Widow Denison two cases with a knife and fork in each, "one Turtleshell tackling the other long with Ivory handles squar'd cost 4s. 6d." In 1738 Peter Fanueil ordered one dozen silver forks from England, "with three prongs, with my arms cut upon them, made very neat and handsome." One Boston citizen had in 1719 six four-pronged forks, an early example of that fashion. In 1737 shagreen cases with ivory-handled forks were advertised; bone, japanned metal, wood, and horn handles also appeared — all, of course, with metal prongs. Sir Francis Bernard had in 1770 three cases of china-handled knives and forks, "with spoons to each," which must have formed a pretty table furnishing.
In many New England inventories of the seventeenth century, among personal belongings, appears the word taster. Thus in 1659 Richard Webb, of Boston, left by will "1 Silver Wine Taster;" and in 1673 John Oxenbridge had "1 Siluer Taster with a funnel." A taster was apparently a small cup. Larger drinking-cups of silver were called beakers, or tankards, beer-bowls, or wine-bowls. These latter vessels were made also of humbler metal. A sneaker was a small drinking-glass, used by moderate drinkers — sneakcups they were called.
The Pilgrims may have had a few mugs and jugs of coarse earthen ware. A large invoice of Poruguese "road ware" was sent to the Maine settlers in 1634, and proved thoroughly unsuitable and undurable; but probably no china — not even Delft ware — came over on the Mayflower. For when the Pilgrims made their night trip through the Delft-producing cities, no such wares were seen on the tables of plebeian persons. Early mentions of china are in the estate of President John Davenport in 1648 — "Cheney £5," and of Martha Coteymore in 1647.
Earthen ware, Green ware, Lisbon ware, Spanish platters, are mentioned in early inventories; but I am sure neither china ware nor earthen ware was plentiful in early days; nor was china much known till Revolutionary times.
The table furnishings of the New England planters consisted largely of wooden trenchers, and these trenchers were employed for many years. Sometimes they were simply square blocks of wood whittled out by hand. From a single trencher two persons — two children, or a man and wife — ate their meals. It was a really elegant household that furnished a trencher apiece for each diner. Trenchers were of quite enough account to be left by name in early wills, even in those of wealthy colonists. In 1689 "2 Spoons and 2 Trenchers" were appraised at six shillings. Miles Standish left twelve wooden trenchers when he died. Many gross of them were purchased for use at Harvard College. As late as May, 1775, I find "Wooden Trenchers" advertised among table furnishings, in the Connecticut Courant.
It was the same in Old England. J. Ward, writing in 1828 of the "Potter's Art," spoke thus of the humble boards of his youth:
"And there the trencher commonly was seen
With its attendant ample platter treen."
Until almost our own time trenchers were made in Vermont of the white, clean, hard wood of the poplar-tree, and were sold and used in country homes. Old wooden trenchers may be seen in Deerfield Memorial Hall. Bottles, noggins, cups, and lossets (flat dishes) of wood were also used at colonial boards.
The time when America was settled was the era when pewter ware had begun to take the place of wooden ware, just as the time of the Revolutionary War may be assigned to mark the victory of porcelain over pewter.
A set of pewter platters, or chargers and dishes, made what was called a "garnish" of pewter, and were a source of great pride to every colonial housewife, and much time and labor were devoted to polishing them until they shone like silver. Dingy pewter was fairly accounted a disgrace. The most accomplished Virginian gentleman of his day gave as a positive rule, in 1728, that "Pewter Bright" was the sign of a good housekeeper.
The trade of pewterer was a very influential and respectable one in New England as well as Old England. One of Boston's richest merchants, Henry Shrimpton, made large quantities of pewter ware for the Massachusetts colonists. So proud was he of his business that in his later years of opulence he had a great kettle atop of his house, to indicate his past trade and means of wealth. Pewter and pewterers abounded until the vast increase of Oriental commerce brought the influx of Chinese porcelain to drive out the dull metal. Advertisements of pewter table utensils did not disappear, however, in New England newspapers until this century.
A universal table furnishing was —
"The porringers that in a row
Hung high and made a glittering show."
When not in use porringers were hung by their pierced handles on hooks on the edge of the dresser-shelf, and, being usually of polished pewter or silver, indeed made a glittering show. Pewter porringers were highly prized. One family, in 1660, had seven, and another housewife boasted of nine. They were bequeathed in nearly all the early colonial wills. In 1673 John Oxenbridge left three silver porringers and his wife one silver pottinger; but pewter was the favorite metal. I do not find porringers ever advertised under that name in New England papers, though many were made as late as this century by New Haven, Providence, and Boston pewterers. Many bearing the stamps of these manufacturers have been preserved until the present day, seeming to have escaped the sentence of destruction apparently passed on other pewter utensils and articles of tableware.
Perhaps they have been saved because the little, shallow, graceful dishes, with flat pierced handle on one side, are really so pretty. The fish-tail handles are found on Dutch pewter. Silver porringers were made by all the silversmiths. Many still exist bearing the stamp of one honored maker, Paul Revere. Little earthen porringers of red pottery and tortoiseshell ware are also found, but are not plentiful.
A similar vessel, frequently handleless, was what was spelt, in various colonial documents, posned, possnet, posnett, porsnet, pocneit, posnert, possenette, postnett, and parsnett. It is derived from the Welsh posned, a porringer or little dish. In 1641 Edward Skinner left a "Postnett" by will; this was apparently of pewter. In 1653 Governor Haynes, of Hartford, left an "Iron Posnet" by will. In the inventory of the estate of Robert Daniel, of Cambridge, in 1655, we learn that "a Little Porsenett" of his was worth five shillings. In 1693 Governor Caleb Carr, of Providence, bequeathed to his wife a "silver possnet & the cover belonging to it." By these records we see that posnets were of various metals, and sometimes had covers. I have found no advertisements of them in early American newspapers, even with all their varied array of utensils and vessels. I fancy the name fell quickly into disuse in this country. In Steele's time, in the Tatler, he speaks of "a silver Posnet to butter eggs." I have heard the tiny little shallow pewter porringers, about two or three inches in diameter, with pierced handles, which are still found in New England, called posnets. They were in olden times used to heat medicine and to serve pap to infants. I have also been told that these little porringers were not posnets, but simply the samples of work made by apprentices in the pewterer's trade to show their skill and proficiency.
Tin vessels were exceedingly rare in the seventeenth century, either for table furnishings or for cooking utensils, and far from common in the succeeding one. John Wynter, of Richmond's Island, Maine, had a "tinninge basson & a tinninge platter" in 1638. In 1662 Isaac Willey, of New London, had "Tynen Pans & 1 Tynen Quart Pott;" and Zerubbabel Endicott, of Salem, had a "great tyn candlestick." By 1729, when Governor Burnet's effects were sold, we read of kitchen utensils of tin.
I do not think iron was in high favor among the colonists as a material for household utensils. It was not an iron age. They had iron pans, candlesticks, dishes, fire-dogs, and pots: the latter vessels were traded for vast and valuable tracts of land with the simple red men; but iron was not vastly in use. At an early date iron-foundries were established throughout New England, with, however, varying success.
Latten ware, which was largely composed of brass, appeared in various useful forms for table and culinary appointments. Hard-metal was a superior sort of pewter. Prince's metal (so called from Prince Rupert), a fine brass alloyed with copper and arsenicum, is occasionally named.
Leather, strangely enough, was also used on the table in the form of bottles and drinking cups and jacks, which were pitchers or jugs of waxed leather, much used in ale-houses in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, and whose employment gave rise to the belief of the French that Englishmen drank their ale out of their boots. Endicott received of Winthrop one leathern jack worth one shilling and sixpence. I find leathern jacks, bottles, and cups named among the property of Connecticut colonists.
Nearly all the glass ware of the eighteenth century was of inferior quality, full of bubbles and defects. It was frequently fluted. Many pieces have been preserved that have been painted in vitrifiable colors; the designs are crude, the colors red, yellow, blue, and occasionally black or green. The transparent glass thus painted is said to be of Dutch manufacture. The opalized glass similarly decorated is Spanish. Drinking-glasses or flip-mugs seem to have been most common, or, at any rate, most largely preserved. The tradition attached to all the pieces of Spanish glass which I have found in New England homes is that they came from the Barbadoes. Bristol glass also was painted in colors, and came to this country, being advertised in the Boston News-Letter.
Glass bottles were frequently left by will in early days, being rare and valuable; but by newspaper days glass was imported in various shapes, and soon was plentiful enough. In 1773 we find this advertisement:
"Very rich Cut Glass Candlesticks, cut Glass sugar Boxes & Cream Potts, Wine, Wine & Water, and Beer Glasses with cut shanks, Jelly & Syllabub Glasses, Glass Salvers, also Cyder Glasses, Free Mason Glasses, Orange & Top Glasses, Glass Cans, Glass Cream Buckets and Crewits, Royal Arch Mason Glasses, Glass Pyramids with Jelly Glasses, Globe & Barrel Lamps, Double Flynt Wyn Glasses," &c.
The most curious glass relics that are preserved are the flip-glasses or bumper-glasses; they are tumbler-shaped, and are frequently engraved or fluted. Some hold over a gallon.
The names of table furnishings varied somewhat in the eighteenth century. There were milk-pots, milk-ewers, milk jugs, ere there were milk-pitchers; sugar-boxes, sugar pots, sugar-basins, ere there were sugar-bowls; spoon-boats and spoon-basins ere there were spoon-holders. Terrines were imported about 1750. There were pickle-dishes and pickle-boats, twifflers, mint-stands and vegetable-basins.
One other appurtenance of a dining-room is found in
all early inventories — a voider. Pewter voiders abounded and were advertised
in newspapers, as were wicker and china voiders in 1740. The functions of a
voider were somewhat those of a crumb-tray. They are thus given in Hugh
Rhodes's "Boke of Nurture" in 1577:
Wyth bones & voyd morsels fyll not
thy trenchour, my friend, full
Avoyd them into a Voyder,
no man will it anull.
When meate is taken quyte awaye
and Voyders in presence
Put you your trenchour in the same
and all your resydence.
Take you with your napkin & knyfe
the croms that are fore thee
In the Voyder your Napkin leave
for it is curtesye