Thursday, August 5, 2010

"Snil Pige," or, "Nice Girl"

Stooping over cardboard boxes stuffed with everything from VHS tapes to sneakers, I was incredulous that I would find something worthy of Apartment C (my current apartment) until my boyfriend picked-up a small (about 2.250" high) mug decorated with gilt lettering and trim.

We both took a quick look at it and thought "nineteenth century." Seeing as each item was going for a buck, I bought it. It isn't in the best condition, but I figured I could put it to good use. I bought it in early June, but it wasn't until about two weeks ago that I Googled the non-English inscription: "translate: snil pige." Thanks to the wonders of Google I learned that in Danish, "snil pige" means "nice girl." Great, it's cheeky, and it doesn't say "nice boy" (in that case, I would have passed it along to my special friend).

I looked at this mug for weeks, my gut telling me that its Gothic lettering and run-of-the-mill ceramic body indicated to me that it was probably made in the mid-late nineteenth century. When I got around to investigating the options, I was pleased to conclude that my gut seems to have been right. That Master's degree was worth it, after all!

So, what is this? Well, we're dealing with more ceramics. (Hang tight. I promise I'll be discussing other media soon. I don't have any antique-y ceramics left to write about, anyway.) My almost laughable knowledge of ceramics brings us back to the 'ol beginner's's not translucent, so it can't be porcelain, and it doesn't have an "orange peel" texture I know to associate with stoneware. That leaves us with the wide, wide world of earthenware.

I started with the mug's blue cast and the pooling of blue glaze in the crevices where the molded handle was applied to the body. Since pearlware is earthenware that is known for its blue-tinged glaze, I concluded that the mug may very well be pearlware rather than more refined earthenware from later in the nineteenth century. Although, some information floating around in cyberspace made me consider whether the mug is whitestone ware or whiteware. After looking and handling some examples of pearlware at Winterthur that had similar crazing and a similar overall texture, I decided that I was, in fact, probably holding some average quality nineteenth century peralware. (Does anyone know what the mark on the underside indicates?)

Click on the images to enlarge them. It will be easier to see the pooling glaze.

The glaze is crackling throughout, and there are several hairline fractures throughout. There is at least one large chip that has been repaired, and a portion of gilt border at the bottom edge as been in-painted in one small section. Some "nice girl" cared about this mug. This circa 1780-1800 Giacomo Boselli (Savona, Italy) cream-colored earthenware cup at the Victoria & Albert Museum appears to have similar condition issues, further reinforcing my inclination that the snil pig mug is earthenware (possibly pearlware):

Pearlware (a variety of earthenware) became available to consumers around 1780, and it was produced through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. It was first developed by Josiah Wedgwood for the purpose competing with blue-decorated Chinese porcelain. Fine pearlware collected by museums such as Winterthur, fine and decorative arts museums, house museums, etc., was made into a wide variety of domestic tablewares and tools. For examples of pearlware, search for "pearlware" in the New-York Historical Society's online collections database.

In addition to being used to make everyday domestic ceramic wares, pearlware (and earthenware more generally) was also used to make children's ceramic play or toy tablewares, gift, and "souvenir" mugs. According to Noël Riley, Children's earthenwares such as these "varied enormously" when it came to "quality of potting." Page 12 of a report documenting archaeological studies conducted at North 7th and Arch Streets in Philadelphia notes and/or includes images of one "A present for a good girl" mug, one "A gift for Elizabeth" mug, and one "A present for my dear boy" mug unearthed at the site. For more examples, see the circa 1810 Staffordshire, England, toy tea service earthenware teacup at the Victoria & Albert Museum below:

Although I have not found anything quite like the snil pige mug, I think it's fair to conclude that the snil pige mug originally functioned similarly to the mugs and other forms which feature individual children's names and/or scenes and sayings such as "A present for my dear boy." Children’s ceramics tend to feature printed designs and inscriptions, whereas the snil pig mug design and inscription appear to have been hand-applied (as revealed thanks to an inspection with a 10x loop [a recommended antiquing tool]. As one 1998 New York Times article points out, some of these children's ceramics were made for the "bad' set.

The snil pige mug may also be related to later nineteenth-century mugs made from more crude ceramics and decorated with sayings, names, or terms of endearment. Search for "mug" within the "antiques" category on eBay, and you'll see many of examples such mugs. These nineteenth-century children's ceramics were less expensive alternatives to the more traditional silver or porcelain presentation mugs, spoons, etc., which were and continue to be popular gifts for events such as births and christenings.

Since perlaware wasn't made until the last quarter of the eighteenth century, I was comfortable with my conclusion that the mug was probably made in the mid-late nineteenth century. Furthermore, in addition to the ceramic body’s era of production and the condition (discussed above), the hand-applied Gothic lettering tipped me off regarding the mug's second-third quarter of the nineteenth century origins. The text is executed in Gothic or blackface lettering, a typeface that originated with the birth of printing in the fifteenth century and that enjoyed a revival in the late eighteenth through the late nineteenth centuries. The typeface immediately brought to my mind the look of the wool on perforated cardboard mottoes of the 1870s and 80s. Kenneth L. Ames’ chapter on mottoes in Death in the Dining Room interprets the mid-late nineteenth-century use of this and variations on this typeface on a variety of media as an example of the Victorians’ “fascination with hyperbole.”

I haven’t answered all the questions this mug raises. If pearlware production centered in Staffordshire, why is this mug adorned with a Danish inscription? Why haven’t I been able to find similar examples? How did this mug end-up in the U.S.? Was the mug meant to function similarly to the ways in which children’s mugs functioned in the U.S. and England? If it did, is it fair to equate the phrase "good girl" with "nice girl"?

Despite these remaining questions, I have re-established (in part) this salvaged “nice girl” mug’s cultural context, and I have adapted it for reuse as a desktop binder clip holder.

Further Reading

For more on children's ceramics:

1) Wendy Moonan, "Antiques; Presents for Children, Good and Bad," New York Times, July 17, 1998, accessed August 2010,

2) Rick Pardue, Ceramics for Children, 1650-1835 (Winston-Salem, NC: Old Salem Museums & Gardens, c2008).

3) Noël Riley, Gifts for Good Children: The History of Children's China (Ilminster, Somerset, England: R. Dennis, 1991).

For more on ceramics identification:

1) "English Ceramic Sequence," Anthropology 313 course web site, Texas A&M University, accessed August 2010,

For more on Pearlware (Earthenware):

1) George Miller and Robin Hunter, How Creamware Got the Blues: the Origins of China Glaze and Pearlware[S.l. : s.n., 2001?].

For more on Victorian mottoes and Gothic or blackface typefaces:

1) Kenneth L. Ames, "Words to Live By," in Death in the Dining Room & Other Tales of Victorian Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), 97-149.

2) Roxane Jubert, Typography and Graphic Design: From Antiquity to the Present (Paris: Flammarion, 2006).

3) Geoffrey Dowding, An Introduction to the History of Printing Types: An Illustrated Summary of the Main Stages in the Development of Type Design from 1440 up to the Present Day (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1998).

1 comment:

  1. I bought a "Snil Pige" hand painted cup and saucer at a Jewelers (who sells a few antiques) shop in Perth Western Australia in 2012 (approx) nearly opposite "His Majesties Theatre". They are very pretty decorated with flowers on a white ground as well as the words "Snil Pige". The cup is small enough to be a child's cup. (saucer 11 cm dia, cup 6 cm at the top widest part) Each piece has the number 54 printed to the base and the cup has an impressed mark of two letters that I cannot identify.When I look closely I see that the words and flowers have been enameled on the cup with a stencil. Both cup and saucer are crazed and have the Pearl ware blueish tinge you write about. Pearl ware is a glaze not a material.

    I am selling off my collection of ceramics at this time so as not to embarrass my children in the years to come with Dad's rubbish. I value the cup and saucer at an auction price of GBP20-30 but, of course, to me (with the memories of Hay Street) they are priceless and will probably be returned to the cupboard.

    Bob Hipkiss