Friday, January 7, 2011

Raise Your Glasses! :Toasting the New Year with Glass Stemware

For many this past weekend, the New Year celebration included the iconic champagne flute to ring in 2011 with a splash of bubbly. What is it about the shape of a wine glass, or stemware in general, that carries with it a particular sense of style, even an elegance of form. A quick search of Eureka Encyclopedia lists no fewer than twenty different styles of stemware. The diminutive tumbler or a standard glass mug really lacks an air of sophistication by comparison. Once a status symbol reserved only for the well-heeled, stemware is now everywhere.

Figure 64 from Hume's A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America

Ivor Noel Hume's A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America includes an illustration (Fig.64, pg.191) of wine stems and provides periods of manufacture for what he calls, "the most datable part of any glass. . . the most substantial. . . and best preserved when found on archaeological sites"(pg.189).

The reconstructed stemware seen below was recovered by State Museum archaeologists from the Fort Loudon historic site, 36Fr107, and is currently on display in the PHMC excavation exhibit case in the Anthropology and Archaeology Gallery of the State Museum next to the Capitol building in Harrisburg.

air twist stem fragment from Fort Loudon 36Fr107 (photo by Don Giles, State Museum)

Referencing Noel Hume, this particular style of air twist decoration of the stem has a date range between the second and third quarters of the 18th Century.

The range of styles and manufacturing techniques employed make glass objects some of the best time markers on a historic site. For many forms of glassware, it is possible to narrow a window of manufacture and subsequent use down to as little as ten years. Still other glass objects have identifying maker's marks that can pinpoint the very year a particular piece was made.

Created and maintained by Bill Lindsey, formerly of the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management, extensive reference pages detailing a myriad of glass bottle styles and manufacturing techniques to assist in identification and dating can be found on the Society for Historical Archaeology's website. The presence of pontil scars, mold seams, their number and position, and lip or finish treatment all yield clues about the manufacturing process and serve to aid in the dating of glass objects.

Late 19th - early 20th Century wine glass with molded decoration and mold seams from Pottsgrove Manor 36Mg256

Glass assemblages abound in the holdings of the State Museum's Section of Archaeology. Certainly window glass figures prominently on historic sites, as does the ubiquitous, utilitarian Mason jar, in a variety of its own styles. More infrequent though are examples of wine glasses/goblets, or stemware, a subset of the more broadly defined "vessel" glass intended to encompass the gamut of glass table wares. Absent hard-nosed statistical analysis of this specific class of artifact, across a representative sample of sites, hypotheses that incorporate stemware as an infallible indicator of heightened socio-economic status should be relegated to the anthropological waste bin of cliched over-generalizations.

Hume, Ivor Noel 1969
A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. republished by University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia

referenced websites:

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

No comments:

Post a Comment