The American holiday that would become known as Thanksgiving had its origins in Europe. Many towns and villages held celebrations to mark a plentiful harvest and blessings of the previous year. When the first Europeans came to America in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, they brought these harvest celebration traditions with them. Harvest celebrations and days of thanksgiving were held sporadically in the early colonies as no formal holiday existed. The First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving was issued by the Continental Congress from its temporary capitol in York, Pennsylvania in 1777. Thanksgiving has been celebrated as a national holiday since 1863 when it was designated by President Abraham Lincoln.
Over the years since the first celebrations were held, many types of table wares have held the Thanksgiving holiday meal. From deer and squash on wooden bowls and pewter dishes, to turkey and mashed potatoes on disposable plastic plates; the feast is served on the popular dishes of the day.
From the time of the first national Thanksgiving proclamation, the holiday meal would have been served on the fashionable table wares of the day including creamware and pearlware. Creamware and pearlware were fine earthenware ceramics manufactured in England from the mid-18th century through the 1840s. Creamware is a cream-colored porous ceramic that appears yellow or green where it pools in crevices. Pearlware appears white or slightly blue-tinted to the eye and pools blue in crevices.
These ceramic types were produced in a large variety of vessel forms, sizes, decorative styles, and colors, and remain as highly popular today as they did in the decades around the turn of the 19th century. Creamware and pearlware are found on most archaeological sites of that time period and the State Museum of Pennsylvania collections hold many exceptional examples of these ceramic types.
A large variety of shell-edged pearlware vessels were recovered from Philadelphia Market Street Site 36Ph001 in the 1970s, including different sizes and shapes of food serving dishes and serving platters. Many of these pieces are decorated with a blue shell-edged rim pattern.
Blue Shell Edge Pearlware Serving Dishes and Platter
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, holiday meals may have consisted of many courses of meats, wild game, and seafood with accompanying vegetable and side dishes. Sauces, creams, and gravies would have been provided to pour on top. Several blue shell-edged pearlware gravy or cream boats are part of this collection.
Blue Shell Edge Pearlware Gravy or Cream Boats
A table setting of the time would have consisted of numerous wine, liquor, and drinking glasses; individual place settings of up to 24 pieces; and different size plates and bowls for each course of food. These pearlware plates and bowls with green shell-edged rims were also recovered from site 36Ph001.
Green Shell Edge Pearlware Plates and Bowl
Large creamware serving platters may have held meats such as turkey, chicken, fish, or pork. Creamware was available in several popular patterns. The serving platters pictured here have Feather edge and Royal edge rim patterns.
Creamware Serving Platters: Feather Edge Pattern (left) and Royal Edge Pattern (right)
Creamware table settings were available in the Feather edge and Royal edge patterns, as well as in the Queens pattern, octagonal shaped rims, and several other patterns. Queen’s pattern or Queensware was named for its popularity with British Queen Charlotte.
Creamware Bowl and Plate in Queen’s Pattern (top left and right) and Octagonal Plate (bottom)
Pearlware table wares with transfer-printed decorations became popular around the turn of the 19th century. Transfer printing involved transferring an inked design from a copper plate onto a ceramic vessel. Early transfer print pieces were available in blue, with later colors developing in black, brown, red, purple, and green. These pieces often exhibit oriental scenes, pastoral landscapes, or biblical and romantic motifs and were very popular at the time. The Head House and Commuter Tunnel sites in Philadelphia produced many beautiful ceramics including a number of transfer-printed pearlware vessels shown here.
Transfer-printed Pearlware Dishes in Blue and Black. Bottom Plate Motif is a Landscape Scene from Conway, New Hampshire
Creamware and pearlware vessels were also produced using many other decorative techniques including handpainting, dipping (annular, mocha, banded), sponging, luster glazing, enameling, embossing, and encrusting (gritted). The great popularity of creamware and pearlware ceramics finally began to die out in the mid-1800s, making way for whiteware and ironstone.
No matter how you choose to enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner – whether on grandma’s antique china or on Styrofoam plates – we in the Section of Archaeology wish you a terrific holiday! And should you decide you would like to set your table with some lovely creamware or pearlware, there are many websites where you can purchase these pieces , including this beautiful, 17-piece creamware set - https://www.1stdibs.com/furniture/dining-entertaining/dinner-plates/english-pottery-creamware-blue-enamel-shell-edge-dessert-service/id-f_897887/.
Thank you to our followers, volunteers and colleagues who help us in our efforts to preserve the past for the future. We have much to be thankful for and hope you’ll continue to follow our blog and visit with us in the future.
For further information, please see these sources:
2017 History of Thanksgiving. History Channel website, at http://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving.
Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab
2002 Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland. Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum website, at https://www.jefpat.org/diagnostic/index.htm.
Pilgrim Hall Museum
2017 Pilgrim Hall Museum website, at http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/index.html.
The Cook’s Guide
2005 The Cooks Guide and Housekeeper’s & Butler’s Assistant website, at http://www.thecooksguide.com/articles/dining-etiquette.html.
For more information, visit PAarchaeology.state.pa.us or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .