Thursday, September 22, 2011

Archaeology of the Cupboard: Part II

Last week, in Archaeology of the Cupboard: Part I, I described some of the small plates in use at Wiawaka and how I was able to find out when many of them were made. What can this tell us about Wiawaka?

Syracuse China maker's mark indicating this small Wiawaka plate was manufactured in November (indicated by the dots) of 1961 (indicated by the number 90).(1) Photograph by Megan E. Springate, June 17, 2011.

When I first looked at the hotel ware dishes in the cupboard, I assumed that at least some of them, including the custom Wiawaka plates, would date to the first half of the twentieth century. I assumed incorrectly; a preliminary survey of the makers' marks and date codes on the small plates indicates that they were manufactured in the 1950s and 1960s. The Wiawaka small plates, in particular, were manufactured in November 1961, November 1966, and December 1966. This variation in manufacturing dates on its own is testament to broken dishes having to be replaced; most of the Wiawaka small plates were made in 1966, bought for the 1967 season after the initial order of plates made in 1961.

What were they eating off of during the first half of the twentieth century, and what was going on in the 1950s/1960s that hotel ware plates completely replaced whatever was being used before?

Part of the answer was revealed in the Wiawaka Archives held at the Rensselaer County Historical Society. Minutes of the fall board meetings often described the number and type of dishes that needed to be purchased to replace those broken during the season. A passage in the Wiawaka Board of Director meeting minutes of 28 September 1957 notes that new dishes were needed, "preferably of the hotel type, which will withstand hard usage."(2) Other notes in Board of Director meeting minutes from the 1950s indicate that finances were a problem, and the shift to more economical hotel ware may have been part of cost-saving measures. The presence of a Buffalo China plate in Wiawaka's cupboard made in September of 1954 suggests that hotel wares may have been tried on the site earlier, but that they were not adopted.

The Housemother's Report of 1958 indicates that the board heeded the request, and hotel wares were purchased. Requesting 3 dozen cups and saucers, 2 dozen glass dessert dishes, 6 round meat plates, 4 dozen seven-inch bread and butter plates, 2 dozen 9-inch plates, 2 dozen cereal dishes, and 3 dozen egg cups, the Housemother asked again for "the heavier vitreous china such as was bought last year. It does not chip readily and withstands the rough handling and dishwashing better than the lighter weight."(3) Interestingly, this also suggests that the new hotel wares were being used simultaneously with the earlier dishes.

By the late 1950s, then, the finer china previously in use at Wiawaka was being replaced by hotel wares. Perhaps wishing to appear more upscale than would be indicated by plain and generic-patterned wares, in 1961 Wiawaka's board contracted with Syracuse China to produce custom dishes similar to those found in fancier establishments. Manufactured in November of 1961, these would have been in use at Wiawaka during the season of 1962.

Further research may help clarify the motivations and needs met by changing from finer china to generic hotel ware, and then to custom-printed wares during the 1950s and 1960s. Additional information may come from a review of receipts and other documents in the Wiawaka archives, and archaeology may reveal examples of the types and designs of china used before the switch.

(1) Lehner, Lois (1988) Lehner's Encyclopedia of U.S. Marks on Pottery, Porcelain & Clay. Collector Books, Paducah, Kentucky.
(2) Rensselaer County Historical Society, Wiawaka Papers, Box 5, Board of Directors meeting minutes, 28 September 1957.
(3) Rensselaer County Historical Society, Wiawaka Papers, Box 5, Housemother's Report for the 1958 Season.

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